Commentary: AOC’s floor speech was deft takedown of misogyny

A Florida representative’s vulgur insult allowed Ocasio-Cortez to show why Republicans fear her.

By Francis Wilkinson / Bloomberg Opinion

Rep. Ted Yoho of Florida, an ineffective tea party howler scheduled for retirement in January, was on the express to oblivion. But this week he decided to verbally attack Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on the steps of the Capitol, then called her a vulgar, sexist expletive in front of a reporter as he walked away. Now he’ll be remembered as the doormat on which a rising young star wiped her shoes.

Yoho’s “apology” for his crude outburst, delivered on the House floor this week, was as bad as the original insult; a preening self-justification that evaded responsibility at every turn. Yoho also made the mistake of thinking himself clever, smothering his quasi-denial in ambiguity. Then there was this: “I cannot apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family, and my country.”

AOC, as Ocasio-Cortez is known, is the new target of right-wing rage and already a popular subject of Republican television advertising. In this, she follows in the footsteps of Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. You might notice something about those names. The first is regarded as one of the most accomplished legislators of the 20th century. The second is a former senator and secretary of state and the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party. The third is the first woman to be elected speaker of the House. She’s also regarded by many as the most effective speaker in recent decades.

Unlike Yoho, they are politicians of consequence. That AOC has been elevated by the conservative outrage complex to such heights should have provided Yoho’s first inkling that, politically and intellectually, she is way out of his league.

“I have tossed men out of bars that have used language like Mr. Yoho’s, and I have encountered this type of harassment riding the subway in New York City,” she said.

The implication about Yoho’s character was clear enough. Yet at no time during AOC’s speech from the House floor did she stoop to his level. “I will not allow people to change and create hatred in our hearts,” she said. Instead, she used Yoho’s cynical defense against him.

“Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters. I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter too. My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect on the floor of this House toward me on television, and I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”

The #MeToo movement thrives on high-profile examples of boorish (or criminal) behavior and the bravery of women. Yoho supplied the former, AOC the latter. Her speech, which was followed by a procession of Democrats adding their own voices, will travel. It will mobilize and energize women, in particular, for whom Yoho’s language represents not a random mistake but the interior monologue of a political party that is led by a man who sounds just like Yoho.

A young congresswoman from New York delivered one of the most thorough thrashings the Capitol has seen since Rep. Preston Brooks brutally caned Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. And she did it all with dignity, eloquence and poise. She never raised her hand. She didn’t even raise her voice. But the entire nation will hear her.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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