The Only Thing Nancy Pelosi Understands Is Power

Photo: Win McNamee (Getty)

The most prominent freshmen members of Congress in the House have finally grown tired of Nancy Pelosi constantly slamming them in public. Will they do anything about it?

After months of snide comments from Pelosi about Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—a group of four left-wing women of color in their first year in the House—the speaker of the House bewilderingly told her Democratic caucus to stop attacking each other on Twitter. (This was just days after Pelosi’s latest attack on Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues, in which she dismissed them as merely “four people.”) Most took this as a shot at Ocasio-Cortez and the others—because, well, it was, despite the Pelosi team’s best attempts to spin the comments.

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In response, Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post on Wednesday night that the “persistent singling out” of “newly-elected women of color” has gotten “outright disrespectful.” Per the Post, emphasis mine:

The four women are trying to figure out how to respond, texting one another and weighing whether to confront Pelosi to ask her to stop. But for now, they are focused on their congressional duties, even as they defend their votes in the House that have drawn Pelosi’s ire.

“Thank God my mother gave me broad shoulders and a strong back. I can handle it. I’m not worried about me,” said Pressley, who called Pelosi’s comments “demoralizing.” “I am worried about the signal that it sends to people I speak to and for, who sent me here with a mandate, and how it affects them.”

The four have a right to be pissed off, of course. When they were elected, Pelosi celebrated the “diversity in our ranks” as a “strength” in a letter written a day after the Democrats retook the House. Now that they’re actually speaking out, however, it turns out that Pelosi would really rather that they just stay quiet.

At the same time, there’s an uncomfortable truth to Pelosi’s repeated insistence that progressives are virtually powerless within the House caucus. The central problem is that, aside from her four antagonists, House progressives just haven’t been willing to vote against Pelosi’s agenda when they haven’t received concessions. The right wing of the Democratic caucus, on the other hand, has been willing to do that, as evidenced by last month’s shameful immigration vote.

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Justice Democrats’ Waleed Shahid laid this dynamic out in blunt terms on Tuesday:

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This is not a new phenomenon within the Congressional Progressive Caucus by any means. As I wrote back in March, the nearly 30-year history of the CPC up until this point—from the Clinton administration to Iraq War funding to the Affordable Care Act, and so on—has been marked by disappointments and compromises with the establishment to get something done; to “not allow the perfect to be the enemy of good,” so to speak.

Blue Dog Democrats and others on the right wing of the party have long taken the opposite approach, and wielded their power to extract concessions from Democratic leaders. It was reportedly a threat from Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus, after all, which forced Pelosi to hold a vote on that horrible immigration bill.

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This is because Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership only respond to shows of power and force.

At various points since last year, there’s been talk about creating a “subcaucus” within the CPC that’s able to work in the same way as the Blue Dogs, and even a Washington Post story in which CPC co-chairs Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan said they were considering introducing more stringent requirements for CPC members. So far, it doesn’t seem like either idea has come to fruition. And until progressive Democrats show an inclination to not just delay Pelosi’s agenda but grind it to a halt, they will keep getting run over by both the leadership and conservative Democrats, not to mention the GOP.

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Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib cannot do this alone, and so they have two options if they want to see their agenda get any traction. The first is to take a page out of Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus’ book and organize sympathetic colleagues in the House against Pelosi. The second is to vocally support primary challenges to incumbents who threaten to stall or kill a progressive agenda. The first is going to be a tall order, considering the number of actual progressives in the House is rather small. To Ocasio-Cortez’s credit, she’s already doing the second, albeit in a more general sense of encouraging more working-class people to run for Congress.

Both options, to be clear, would make these members broadly unpopular with most of their colleagues. But if they win—and do the things they came to Washington to do, which hopefully does not include making friends—who gives a shit?

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