intelligencer chats

Why Is Nancy Pelosi Going After AOC?

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, and Eric Levitz discuss rising tensions between the doyenne of Democratic politics and a younger generation of progressives.

Ben: In a Maureen Dowd column published on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed progressive Democrats Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Presley, telling Dowd, “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” (This came in the aftermath of a bitter battle over a border-security bill, during which those members used strong language to criticize Pelosi’s compromise with Republicans.) What do you make of all this?

Jon: What struck me is that AOC’s squad is doing her a huge favor by criticizing her from the left and turning her into a centrist. Pelosi used to be THE symbol of out-of-touch coastal liberalism. Now that symbol is AOC, and Pelosi is an Italian grandmother again.

Ben: I’m a strong Pelosi defender, but I don’t see why she has to keep going after them in this way. It seems unnecessary and petty.

Jon: Yeah. I think she should refrain from attacking them so frequently and harshly, though they do go after her, too. And they’re attacking Pelosi for attending to the desires of her majority-makers. But as I said I think it’s helped Pelosi on net, and probably made it easier for the centrists to back her

Ben: In terms of national reputation, I agree.

Jon: Now, loyalty to Pelosi means moderation, because they’re sticking it to AOC. So it might make it easier for Pelosi to hold the moderates in line.

Eric: I think Pelosi’s handling of the Omar 9/11 thing was shameful. And she could have made this point in a less inflammatory way. But her basic argument that Twitter gives some in the media a misleading impression of how much power they have in her caucus — and that they simply did not have the votes to pass what they were demanding on the border bill — seems true from what I’ve read.

Jon: The conservative media has done more than any other force to elevate the AOC squad. So, from Pelosi’s perspective, continuously pointing out that they’re four people is fighting back against conservative propaganda. The campaign to elevate the squad is so successful that news reports frequently portrayed the Democrats’ freshman class on the whole as more progressive than the party, when the opposite is true.

Ben: All I’m saying is that mocking members of your own caucus comes off as churlish and seems like poor long-term strategy. There are plenty of ways to separate yourself from these members, and progressives writ large, without actively antagonizing them like this. It’s pretty easy to make the Twitter argument Eric mentioned without resorting to insults.

Jon: But would it register with the media and have the same effect?

Ben: If she said something about the disparity between online influence and policymaking prowess, sure. I’m not so convinced she has to be so jerky to create the impression that she’s the moderate here.

Do you think Pelosi’s minimizing of AOC and allies in such sharp terms — she’d previously called Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal plan ‘the Green Dream or whatever’ — is an intentional political strategy? Or does this result from a personal dislike of the suggestion that she herself is not progressive enough?

Jon: Probably some of both? I think she finds the outsize profile of the four-member squad both a strategic problem and personally annoying

Eric: Yeah, I can’t speak to Pelosi’s psychology. But she is certainly well acquainted with the notion that Democrats in swing districts generally benefit by putting some distance between themselves and the national party — especially those nationally renowned Democratic politicians who are closely associated with the party’s urban liberal base (i.e., Nancy Pelosi until AOC displaced her in the conservative imagination) — so I think she probably at least rationalizes her posture towards the “squad” in strategic terms, even if it is motivated by personal antipathy.

Ben: So far, in the wake of the 2018 midterms, Democrats have avoided the kind of major internecine fighting that was commonplace among Republicans after the Tea Party wave of 2010. Partly this is because most of the winners in the ‘18 election were moderates, not progressive firebrands. Still, the energy of the party is clearly leaning left, as evidenced by the policy positions of the 2020 presidential candidates. Is Pelosi in danger of creating more of a rebellion among her ranks and/or among rank-and-file voters, or is that not realistically going to happen?

Eric: Depends on the definition of “more of a rebellion.”

Jon: Also, when? I think they’ll hold it together through the election, but in 2021 they’ll be at each others’ throats.

Ben: Well, I mean that the right flank of the Republican party really began calling the shots after a while. That doesn’t seem close to happening here yet. But AOC and company are really dictating where the conversation around Democratic policy is going.

Eric: I could see progressive challengers leveraging liberal outrage over inaction on impeachment, and Pelosi’s stance towards AOC et al., into successful primary challenges in deep blue districts, thereby polarizing the Democratic caucus even more severely. At the same time, given the profound conservative bias of the Senate, I’m not sure that the stakes of intra-House ideological divisions will ever get high enough to trigger a “civil war” or whatever.

Like, I don’t think there’s a scenario where the fate of single payer (or a public option) rests on Pelosi bridging divides between the Problem Solvers and Progressive Caucus. By the time the politics has shifted far enough left to get any major progressive agenda item through the Senate, they’ll have shifted far enough to win a comfortable majority in the House.

Jon: What they can pass into law will be very modest, but I suspect there will be tons of anger at the Democratic leadership from the left.

Eric: That’s a given.

Why Is Nancy Pelosi Going After AOC?