Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is continuing her bizarre one-sided feud with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this week, as Newsweek reported yesterday that she told a crowd at the London School of Economics on Monday night that a “glass of water” could have won Ocasio-Cortez’s district in the general election.
While it’s substantially more complicated than that—Ocasio-Cortez defeated one of the top Democrats in the leadership, Joe Crowley, on her way to an easy general election win—Pelosi is right that Ocasio-Cortez represents a district that isn’t in danger of being lost to the GOP any time soon. Pelosi’s district, which encompasses most of the city of San Fransisco, is like this, too, as she pointed out in the same speech. Ocasio-Cortez’s message, she noted, “works great in my district, I get over 80 percent in my district, these folks do as well, but that’s not where we have to win the election.” (Ocasio-Cortez’s office declined to comment to Newsweek.)
At this point, it’s impossible to identify what sort of weird tick makes Pelosi compulsively insult Ocasio-Cortez. Is it the fact that she beat a fellow member of the leadership, one who was primed to take control of the caucus once Pelosi retired? Is it exasperation about being asked about Ocasio-Cortez in every interview she does? Who knows. Who cares!
The bigger issue is that Pelosi—and, let’s be honest, most elected Democrats—view “win the election” as synonymous with “run moderates in swing seats.” The party’s electoral strategy is based on the 70 or 80 seats, at most, that are in play during any given election cycle, which makes sense. What doesn’t is that its theory of governing revolves around those same seats, and those same members, who are the most likely to lose their seats regardless of what they do in Congress due to swings in the national mood. It wasn’t just liberal members who lost their seats in the last big Republican wave in 2010; it was mostly the conservative Democrats who voted against the Affordable Care Act and stymied Barack Obama’s relatively liberal agenda at every turn.
The Democrats, to be clear, are the only party that does this. The GOP’s strategy since 2015, when it assumed full control of Congress, did not revolve around what was best for Rep. Carlos Curbelo, its most moderate member who represented a swing district in south Florida for two terms before losing last year. It revolved around the priority of the leadership, which was to cut taxes and take healthcare and other essential services away from poor people. For the “moderate” Republicans, the choice was to either get in line with the agenda and probably lose or don’t and probably lose. And largely, they got in line with the agenda.
What’s more depressing on the Democrats’ side, though, is that this strategy isn’t even limited to the swing seats. Rep. Dan Lipinski is one of the only Democrats left in Congress who voted against the Affordable Care Act, and for the second time next year, he’ll face a primary challenge from by Marie Newman, a former advertising executive. Last night, Newman won an endorsement from presidential candidate and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
But because of the new blacklist introduced by the DCCC against consultants who work with primary challengers to Democratic incumbents, Lipinski—who represents a district that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee by less than double-digits since 1992—has an even larger built-in advantage over Newman this time around. (DCCC chair Rep. Cheri Bustos, another member of the leadership, appears to share Pelosi’s singular focus on the swing seats and what’s best for those members.)
At this point, it’s painfully obvious that the Democrats learned the exact wrong lesson from 2018. Most people agree that AOC would have a tough time winning in a swing district; that doesn’t mean that her ideas don’t resonate beyond the Bronx, and it doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t be driving policy. Just as with their propping up of incumbents like Lipinski, it’s not a matter of what the Democratic leadership needs to do with their power in government in order to keep winning elections; it’s what they want to do, and in that respect, a transformation of the American economy in order to produce a better, fairer society is not in the cards.