House Democrats will almost certainly reelect Nancy Pelosi to a fourth term as Speaker on January 3. She easily survived a caucus vote in November and the full floor vote ought to be just as simple. Although Pelosi’s tenure made her a “slay, queen” heroine to some very online #resistance activists, she has plenty of critics in her own party. If Pelosi’s next term is truly her last, as she’s pledged it will be, it means her legacy is currently at stake. And her record will likely age poorly, for reasons recently articulated by one of her party’s rising stars.
In a new interview, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill that Democrats need fresh leadership. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer should go, she said. The two Democratic leaders and their allies have neglected any “real grooming of a next generation of leadership,” she continued, and the party is now weaker than it should be. “A lot of this is not just about [Pelosi and Schumer], but also about the structural shifts that these two personalities have led in their time in leadership,” she added. With power concentrated in the leadership classes of both parties, she said, individual members have less influence, and less incentive to stay in Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez is without question one of the most left-wing Democrats in national office: She’s frequently at odds with senior Democrats on major issues like Medicare for All, a policy that Pelosi doesn’t support. But even within this context, her remarks are notable. When a number of House Democrats said they’d vote against Pelosi in 2019, the newly elected Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that party members must “evolve our leadership” before voting for Pelosi. Her new comments are much blunter, though she made it clear that she intends to vote for Pelosi a second time.
While it may be tempting for some to fit Ocasio-Cortez’s condemnation of Pelosi and Schumer into the party’s ongoing civil war, that analysis is somewhat inaccurate. Under Pelosi and Schumer, the party has catered to conservative and moderate members while alienating its rising progressive flank, and Ocasio-Cortez’s specific criticisms of Pelosi are certainly informed by ideology. But hostility to Pelosi doesn’t just come from the left. In 2018, opposition to her reelection looked strongest on the party’s right. Two years earlier, moderate Tim Ryan challenged her for Speaker, only to lose. For Pelosi’s progressive critics, this is a problem. Opposing Pelosi’s reelection as Speaker really only makes sense if they have the numbers and influence to replace her with an ally, and right now, they don’t. Ocasio-Cortez recognizes this. “If you create that vacuum, there are so many nefarious forces at play to fill that vacuum with something even worse,” she told Scahill. As long as Pelosi remains to the left of her most organized critics, left-wing Democrats have little choice but to vote for her.
House progressives may agree with their moderate colleagues about the state of the party’s leadership class. It has become sclerotic, and ought to be replaced. But generational change isn’t always the same thing as a major ideological shift. If left-wing Democrats such as Ocasio-Cortez want to plot a new direction for the party, they don’t have much time left to build the power it will take to replace Pelosi with one of their own.