Ocasio-Cortez's critics' mistake: They should learn from how liberals and conservatives failed to bring down Donald Trump

What are Republicans to do when faced with an inexperienced, often underinformed, but charming and social media-savvy political opponent? This is the challenge facing Republicans in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman representative from New York’s 14th Congressional district.

Republicans face a confounding problem: attack her, and she only becomes more popular. Ignore her, and she will inevitably rise through the ranks of the Democratic Party, becoming an even greater threat down the road.

Ultimately, the best strategy for the GOP might be no strategy at all. Which is to say, learn from the failed attempts to undermine another inexperienced, uninformed, charming and social media-savvy politician whose current address is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Ocasio-Cortez, 29, has been something of a media darling since her surprise primary upset of 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley. Representing a fresh alternative to the staid Democratic establishment, she is a telegenic, believably genuine new face in politics with a keen eye for social media engagement. When someone aims at her on Twitter, she hits back with ferocity and intelligence. Her folksy Instagram live-streams rack up hundreds of thousands of viewers.

Related: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is sworn in

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is sworn in
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th Congressional District, takes a selfie with Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-NH, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., laughs out loud as she talks with other new House members on the opening day of the 116th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th Congressional District, is flanked by Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., left, and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., right, as they are sworn in on the opening day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority under the leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as speaker of the House, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., second from left, and her mother Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, left, react as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., walks over to them for a photo during a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
From left, Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-NH, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., turn to the gallery to pose for photographs at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., stand together on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, a freshman Democrat representing New York's 14th Congressional District, takes a selfie with Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority under the leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California as speaker of the House, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., laughs with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, right, on the opening day of the 116th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, second from left, and Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., left, stand together on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, on the first day of the 116th Congress with Democrats holding the majority. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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But what AOC has in PR savvy, she lacks in policy chops or even the basics of governance. Ocasio-Cortez has at times struggled to articulate in interviews, when pressed, how to fund and implement her more lofty progressive policy objectives. Her fallback is that nobody ever makes Republicans explain how they intend to pay for wars, so they should not similarly scrutinize domestic priorities. Her constitutional knowledge is, at best, Trumpian. Nor is she above threatening private citizens with the might of government.

Like Trump, however, none of that matters to her supporters. And that is a problem for Republicans.

Sensing a legitimate threat, or perhaps just seeking to calibrate their attacks on a doe-eyed political neophyte, conservatives have pursued the entirely counterproductive strategy of taking on AOC directly. Legitimate criticisms of her ignorance of policy and economics, and somewhat more tenuous attacks on her claims of poverty, and even her choice of clothes have been lobbed from the right.

Normally, dunking on democratic socialists who wear nice suits is an easy way to score quick political points. Likewise for some of AOC’s more notable substantive policy gaffes.

But conservatives have underestimated the power of the social media halo and AOC has managed to turn the tables on critics. Sympathetic media coverage has also helped in that regard.

Simply ignoring AOC, however, will likely prove just as counterproductive. Giving her an unopposed platform will allow her to grow her supporters and lay the groundwork for higher political ambitions down the road that Republicans would struggle to stop.

Ironically, perhaps Republicans’ best hope comes from Nancy Pelosi and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. Already attempting to bring the more disruptive freshmen elements of the party to heel, pragmatic senior party leadership has the most leverage over their nascent political careers. Mindful of purple state representatives and seats flipped in the 2018 midterms, they have not shown a great deal of warmth for newcomers’ more extreme progressive positions.

Whether Democratic leadership isolates and freezes out AOC and her more far-left ideas or assimilates her into the Democratic Borg with promises of plum committee posts if she plays nice, Pelosi and Democratic higher-ups are the best friends Republicans have in containing a still-unbowed AOC.

To take on an unconventional politician, Republicans must be cautious and learn from their experience on the rise of Donald Trump. To blunder headlong into direct attacks on Ocasio-Cortez simply leaves Republicans open to another embarrassing defeat at the hands of a political rookie.

Richarz writes on politics.

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