What Is the New York Times Talking About?

Photo: Susan Walsh (AP)

The New York Times has a new piece out today which attempts to lay out the reasons for the growing rift between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and progressive House freshmen including, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Aside from a few basic facts, it gets the whole story wrong.

Those basic facts are this: from the very beginning, Pelosi has been taking potshots at Ocasio-Cortez and others including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, four left-wing members of the caucus. Ocasio-Cortez has been a particular subject of her ire; the day Ocasio-Cortez introduced her plan for a Green New Deal, Pelosi called it the “green dream or whatever they call it.” Pelosi has also repeatedly dismissed the group of left-wing House freshmen for its small size.

For her part, Ocasio-Cortez—probably the most Online member of Congress, all things considered—has repeatedly downplayed her differences with Pelosi, and vocally supported her bid for the speakership last year. That all changed with last week’s House passage of Mitch McConnell’s border bill—after which Pelosi belittled Ocasio-Cortez and the others in an interview with Maureen Dowd, Ocasio-Cortez used Pelosi’s own words against her in tweets, and Omar cosigned Ocasio-Cortez’s criticisms.

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And so all of these things provided the perfect conditions for a classic story of Democratic infighting intrigue. Where the Times goes wrong, however, is simply passing this off as a clash of multiple fierce personalities rather than what it really is—an exposure of the ideological fault lines within the “big tent” of the Democratic Party. Seriously, reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis even comes out and says this:

The back and forth has less to do with ideological differences between Ms. Pelosi and the young crop of progressives than their divergent styles and agendas.

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First of all, what drives a political agenda if not ideology? Whether it’s conservatism, liberalism, socialism, or capitalism, political ideology is always going to make up the backbone of what politicians do and what they say they’re going to do. It’s that simple.

Beyond that, however, to downplay the ideological differences between Pelosi and AOC here is to do a disservice to both of them. Ocasio-Cortez is fighting for a stronger government role in the economy, on issues like healthcare and climate change; Pelosi doesn’t just have disdain for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, she’s actively working on liberal alternatives to those things.

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On the issues where Ocasio-Cortez has been most vocal so far—these, as well as impeachment, which Pelosi is opposed to not just for Donald Trump but apparently Alex Acosta as well—Pelosi is an obstacle. Likewise, Pelosi is very much an animal of the status quo, which isn’t surprising considering she’s attained an astonishing amount of wealth and political power over her four decades in public life. When America has been good to you, you tend to not want to shake things up too much.

Based on this central premise, that Pelosi and AOC’s differences are mostly strategic, the piece just devolves from there. Hirschfeld Davis writes, emphasis mine:

Ms. Pelosi, whose legislative triumphs include muscling the Affordable Care Act through the House in 2010, has focused on using the House Democrats’ power to challenge Mr. Trump by advancing legislation that appeals to the broadest possible swath of Democrats, including the more than two dozen moderate lawmakers elected in districts carried by the president in 2016. She has kept the fractious caucus united on measures addressing health care, gun safety, election reforms and immigration, even as divisions persist over whether to impeach Mr. Trump, a step she has so far refused to endorse.

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Not only did Pelosi famously not keep the “fractious caucus” united on this last immigration bill—you know, the whole reason this piece exists in the first place—the Times also completely ignores the role that the right wing of the caucus has played in that fracturing, which includes voting for GOP messaging amendments to some of those bills Pelosi is getting credit for keeping the caucus together on.

Relatedly, the piece also glosses over the reason why the caucus is so fractious in the first place, which is Pelosi’s belief (along with many Democrats, to be fair) that only pain-in-the ass right-wingers can win in swing districts and hold those seats. This has been proven spectacularly untrue over the past decade, but it’s what the Democratic Party’s electoral strategy has been centered around for decades. And it continues to be an active hindrance when the Democrats are in power and actually want to, you know, do good things with that power.

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The Times, like everyone else who has a pair of eyes, can clearly see the cracks forming in the Democratic coalition. Their explanation for why this is happening, however, leaves a lot to be desired.

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