The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez You Don’t Know

Six days after winning election to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did what so many young progressives do while visiting the nation’s capital: She went to a rally. It was 2018, and Democratic dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump was a constant in Washington — but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t protesting a Republican policy. She was at a sit-in at Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office organized by a group dedicated to pushing Democrats to the left on climate issues. Ms. Pelosi said she welcomed the protest, but behind closed doors, top Democrats soon became exasperated with their new colleague.

First impressions are hard to erase, and the obstinacy that made Ms. Ocasio-Cortez an instant national celebrity remains at the heart of her detractors’ most enduring critique: that she is a performer, out for herself, with a reach that exceeds her grasp.

But Democrats frustrated by her theatrics may be missing a more compelling picture. In straddling the line between outsider and insider, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is trying to achieve the one thing that might just shore up her fractured party: building a new Democratic coalition that can consistently draw a majority of American support.

The strategy she has come to embrace isn’t what anyone would ve expected when she arrived in Washington. In some ways, she’s asking the obvious questions: What’s broadly popular among a vast majority of Americans, and how can I make it happen? To achieve progress on these issues, she has sought common ground in places where her peers are not thinking to look. Her willingness to forge unlikely alliances, in surprisingly productive places, has opened a path to new voters — for her party, her ideas and her own political ambitions if she ever decides to run for higher office.

Since 2016, there have been two competing visions for the Democratic Party. One is the promise that began with Barack Obama of a multiracial coalition that would grow stronger as America’s demographics shifted; the other is the political revolution championed by Bernie Sanders as a way to unite nonvoters with the working class. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez bridges the gap between the two. The dream for Democrats is that one day, she or someone like her could emerge from the backbench to bring new voters into the party, forging a coalition that can win election after election. It’s too early to tell whether she has what it takes to pull that off. But what’s clear is that at a time when Democrats are struggling, she is quietly laying the groundwork to build a coalition broader than the one she came to power with, unafraid to take risks along the way.

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