AOC and “Squad” vs Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi recently gave an interview to Maureen Dowd. Most of it was the usual stuff — boo Republicans, down with Trump. But what’s garnering most of the attention is remarks she made about the hard progressive wing of her party and their opposition to the bill to fund relief for the border crisis. In particular, she had this to say about the “Squad” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley:
Pelosi feels that the four made themselves irrelevant to the process by voting against “our bill,” as she put it, which she felt was the strongest one she could get. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
I’m actually going to recommend you read the whole interview just to put this pull-quote into its proper perspective. The media (and um, this post) have focused on the internecine rift because it’s interesting. But to hear progressive Twitter talk about it, you’d think she’d spent the entire interview on the subject. To the contrary, Pelosi pulls no punches on calling out Republicans (“If he could be president, this glass of water could be president!” she says of Trump). And she calls out the media for letting Trump suck all the oxygen out of the debates.
But the internal rift in the Democratic Party is interesting. We’ve seen flares of it before — the progressives calling for Trump to be impeached while Pelosi demurs; the progressives calling for the Green New Deal while leadership backs a more cautious approach; the progressives pushing to have Medicare For All abolish private insurance while the moderates support something approaching a public option. Pelosi’s remarks have brought this fight out into the open with multiple publications going after her and AOC herself tweeting numerous responses to the Pelosi quote. The anti-Pelosi-ists argue that moderation doesn’t get them anywhere and they should be thinking big (and, as an aside, that the leadership of the Democratic Party is too old and white to understand this).
Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Fashionable Haircut
At the risk of achieving my lifelong goal of maximum condescension, I have to say that this little kerfuffle reminds me of a teenagers grousing at their parents. The teenager thinks they know everything; that their parents just don’t get it. It takes time for them to eventually realize that their parents actually get it much better than they do.
What exactly have these new progressives accomplished so far? They have proposed several ideas (not legislation) that have gone nowhere. Their big thing was the Green New Deal, which was roundly mocked and immediately voted down by Mitch McConnell as he grinned like Cheshire Cat.
By contrast, what has Pelosi achieved? Well, she shepherded Obamacare through Congress and it is notably the one part of Obama’s legacy that Trump has not been able to entirely undo. Progressives, of course, criticized her (and Obama) for not doing single payer when they had the chance. But getting Obamacare through was almost impossible. And if Clinton hadn’t blown an easy election, they’d be building on that right now.
Over Obama’s first two years, Nancy Pelosi got one of the more aggressive Democratic agendas in years through an extremely hostile opposition party. Once she became Speaker again, her first act was to stare down Trump over a government shutdown. A stare-down she won.
Pelosi has accomplished these things because, like anyone who pays attention to politics, she understands that getting things done in Washington is hard. It’s hard when you have to deal with the other party but it’s hard even when your party controls all three branches of government. Because even one party has factions within it, not all of whom are on board with the headline agenda. You can’t just tell the special interests to take a hike; you have to get some of them on board so that you can turn them against the other ones.
Hearing the AOC-ites criticize that reminds me of … well, of Trump. Or more accurately, the movement that gave rise to him. There is a common delusion among Americans that political change is easy. That all you need is for someone to “stand up to the special interests” and give a big speech and the opposition will melt away like an episode of The West Wing. But it’s not like that. There are a million agendas and a thousand interests scrambling around Washington. Any agenda is going to find opposition. And no, not just because of evil special interest money and lying media news networks. It will find opposition because people — a fair number of people — will disagree with you, no matter how brilliant, obvious and popular you might think your agenda is.
The practical boring legislative side of politics is not a revolution in which all your dreams come true in the first 100 days. It’s finding that narrow window in which the opposition is minimized and you can get something you want. And getting through that window leads to… more windows, each of which has to be approached in a different way. And as tempting as it may be to smash the windows, Targaryen-style, that approach rarely works.
To cite another issue which illustrates the difference between the “we can do anything” progressive wing and the “we can sort of do some things” moderate wing: take climate change. I think climate change is one of the more important issues right now. And I think dealing with climate change means taking on Big Oil. That’s a mammoth task; almost an impossible one. That effort failed in 2008 (albeit with a plan I thought was poor). But it can be tried again now. Maybe the Democrats can get a carbon tax. Or more investment in alternative energy. Or (my preferred policy) way more money into research and innovation.
Now contrast that against a Democratic Party pushing the Green New Deal. Suddenly they’re taking on the oil companies…and the healthcare industry…and the insurance industry… and the construction industry…and the automotive industry…and labor unions…and about 90% of our citizens. That’s not going to happen, no matter how passionately people believe that the country will wake up their awesomeness.
Look, I’m no fan of Pelosi. I consider her quite liberal, a bit daffy and, yeah, somewhat out of touch. She’s older than Methuselah and richer than Croesus. But she knows how things work. It must be frustrating for Democrats to constantly deal with the wet blanket of their leadership. But they kind of need a wet blanket right now if they’re going to succeed. They have 3,425 Presidential candidates making an increasingly elaborate list of promises that can never be kept. They have a progressive wing that thinks they can transform the country with their sheer unadulterated optimism. Someone needs to say, “No, that’s not going to work. Here’s what will.”
What’s more, moderation… works. It works in the electoral sense. For all the progressive dreams of a great blue wave sweeping the country on promises of free healthcare, free college, free daycare and free pickles, they have never won with that kind of agenda. The times they tried — 1972 and 1984 in particular — they got destroyed. They were able to advance more aggressive agendas in the 60s and 70s but their success in building the Great Society flowed from an odd coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists, an alignment that came apart in the 70s and 80s. We are not going to see that moment again, thankfully.
But moderation? Bill Clinton won two elections as a moderate. Obama won two elections as left of center (Republican demonization not withstanding). The Democrats won Congress in 2006 on the back of “blue dog” moderate Democrats. And they won in 2018 using the same tactic. Hell, they won a senate seat in Alabama….ALABAMA…running a moderate Democrat. Granted, he will probably lose next time and won mainly because Roy Moore was so repellent. But that’s a seat that Jeff Sessions won unopposed in 2014 and won by almost 30 points in 2008. Even with Moore’s considerable baggage, that seat should not have been in play.
Do you think it’s any accident that Joe Biden is currently polling the best against Trump? That’s mainly because he is perceived as the more moderate candidate.
But more than that, moderation works legislatively. Had Obama proposed single payer, it would have gone down in flames. But by proposing a more modest reform and getting most of the special interests on board, he and Pelosi got it through. Had Bill Clinton proposed raising the top marginal rate to 70%, it would have failed. But a rise to 39.6% got through. LGBT rights have advanced piece-by-piece. Civil rights have advanced piece-by-piece. Every success the Democrats have had over the last 30 years has been a result of advancing their agenda as far as they can without the coalition completely coming apart.
Ultimately, the path forward for the Democrats is what it has always been: center-left. If they want to advance an agenda, they do what they can, endure the backlash, maybe lose Congress. And then they come back again once the Republican screw things up (which they inevitably do). I know that sounds frustrating and tedious to our liberal friends. But it’s how the ball gets moved downfield. Our political system isn’t set up to be an arena football game. It’s set up to be a 1970’s defensive struggle. Move the ball, punt, hold the opposition. Manage field position. Set yourself up for the occasional field goal. Once in a while, get a big run. Minimize turnovers.
That’s how the country has moved so far on issues of LGBT equality. That’s how the country has moved so far on environmental issues (excepting global warming). That’s how the country has moved so far on healthcare. No, it’s not the revolution liberals want. But 1932 was the anomaly, not the rule. American politics grinds slowly; it’s intended to. But if you keep your shoulder to the wheel and keep pushing, you can get some things done. I’ll oppose a lot of those things, of course. But I think progress — in the lower case sense — comes from everyone pushing on the wheel until it moves a little sideways. As an independent conservative-libertarian, I think our political system work best when we have two functional parties mostly stopping each other from stupid things but occasionally grudgingly haltingly doing things that need to be done.
Whither the Republicans
It’s at this point that progressives always whine, “Well, why are we the ones who always have to moderate? Republican never do!” This is a popular talking point and it is absolutely 100% complete brass-bound manure. Republicans once talked of privatizing Social Security; they abandoned that talk halfway through Bush’s presidency. They once ran on a Constitutional Amendment to ban gay marriage; they’ve almost completely abandoned the issue. To be fair, they have run to the right on a number of issues (abortion most notably). But even as they were repealing parts of Obamacare, they were adopting the language of Democrats. The biggest expansion of Medicare since its foundation took place under Bush. So did the biggest expansion of federal education spending. And one of the most ambitious agendas to tackle HIV.
In fact, the dirty little secret of Trump is that he moderated the GOP on a lot of issues. I know that sounds crazy since his immigration stances are quite extreme. But Trump moderated the GOP’s stance on trade, entitlement reform and the Iraq War. Trump massively moderated the GOP’s stance on LGBT issues, the trans soldier ban notwithstanding. The foreign policy he laid out was to the left of Hillary Clinton. And regardless of what you think about Trump or how he has governed, polling consistently showed that the voters considered Trump much more moderate than McCain, Romney or either Bush, none of whom were exactly rock-ribbed conservative flamethrowers.
Far from being a counterexample to the theory that moderation pays off, Trump’s election is, if anything, a testament to its power. The millions of progressives baffled that someone as coarse, ignorant, and scandal-plagued as Trump could win an election should reflect on the fact that he was able to partially recover from those things due to his positions on the issues.
That’s not to say that Trump ran a sober-minded, issue-oriented campaign. Far from it. His main themes were dedicated to mobilizing ugly racial sentiments. But racism is not new to American politics. Had Trump ran on a conventional Republican platform of cutting Social Security and Medicare, Democrats would have hammered him for it — just as they hammered Bush and McCain and Romney — and won the votes of many older non-college whites who are racist enough to like Trump but sufficiently non-racist to have voted for Democrats in the past.
I would also add that the GOP has a lot more room to run to the extreme. This country tends to lean center-right. It tends to find far-Left candidates more alarming than far-Right ones. The Republicans’ only identifiable agenda right now is stopping the Democrats from doing anything. People are a lot less alarmed by a party standing athwart the tracks of history yelling “Stop!” than they are by a party driving the train and throwing ever more coal into the tinder.
Moreover, the GOP is presently in an odd and not entirely sane place. The party — at least the grifter/commentariat class — has been taken over by a group of people to whom success is entirely defined by opposition to the Democrats. During Obama’s tenure, the GOP commentariat praised them to the skies for mindlessly opposing Obama, which accomplished nothing. And then they raked them over the coals for cooperating with Obama on a budget which imposed the tightest spending restraint in two generations and cut the deficit in half. They blasted Romney as a sell-out for winning an election in a blue state and advancing a conservative agenda within it. But they praise Trump as he blows up the deficit, coddles dictators and lavishes subsidizes on businesses because Trump tweets out insulting names at Democrats and the media. They just drove Justin Amash — one of the most consistently conservative members of Congress — out of the GOP because he refused to genuflect to the Dear Leader.
This approach has had some electoral success — although that is mainly because of structural factors that favor Republicans (e.g., the geographic concentration of Democratic voters). But it has been a legislative disaster. The actual conservative agenda — such as it is — has gotten nowhere. The clearest example was the Obama budget deal. The chance at real entitlement reform — a long-desired conservative goal — slipped away because the Tea Party caucus refused to “surrender” on an accompanying tax hike.
The GOP has had more success at the state level — e.g., the abortion bans that have passed in numerous states. But those have only happened in states where the GOP has an overwhelming majority in the legislature. And their pursuit of the hard right wing has left them with almost no power in blue states.
In short, the GOP’s example is not one that should be held up as a model. It should be held up as a warning of what can happen when you let the hotheads take over the party.
All Those Followers
I’m also kind of with Pelosi in her dismissal of the importance of Twitter and social media. AOC is pointing out that, thanks to her massive social media presence, she isn’t having to raise money. She’s getting her message out via Twitter instead of paying for TV adds.
I find this response to be incredibly self-centered and myopic. I asked how many people watch TV vs. Twitter and Andrew noted:
7% use Twitter, wi/4M followers AOC is fraction of that. It is a powerful tool, but your message & methods still make the difference. And the “four freshmen’s” message & methods are running afowl of the real power. The real power will win. Pelosi knows this. AOC is yet to learn.
— Andrew Donaldson (@four4thefire) July 7, 2019
Andrew’s right: social media is a powerful tool. But ultimately it is an addition to, not a replacement for, the well-established tool kit that politicians use to raise money, win elections and get legislation passed. I’m glad that AOC has enough of a Twitter following and lives in a liberal enough district that she doesn’t have to raise money (although she might be a bit less glad of that come primary time). But the rank and file of Democrats don’t have the luxury of four million Twitter followers, an overwhelmingly liberal district and worshipful media following. Most of them have to struggle and claw just to stay in office. And most of them represent constituencies that are far more moderate than AOC’s.
Trump has an even bigger social media presence than AOC. And yet, he’s smart enough — and it’s rare that I use that word to describe him — to know that traditional fund-raising is still necessary (as witnessed by a record-breaking $105 million haul last quarter). But what has his massive social media presence reaped? He got his tax cut and an elimination of the Obamacare mandate and … that’s kind of it. No wall. No Trumpcare. No deep cuts to discretionary spending. The wall in particular is a perfect illustration of the failure of the take-no-prisoners my-way-or-the-highway legislate-via-Twitter approach to politics. Trump could have gotten his wall had he agreed to a permanent DACA fix. But he refused. And so he got nothing.
The Road Ahead
Ultimately, I don’t think this will matter. The AOC wing of the party is getting lots of media attention. But the party is not defined by it. They are more defined by the vast millions of center-left people who aren’t political junkies. Those people are currently supporting Biden. And unless Biden completely blows it — a non-zero possibility, to be fair — he’ll be the nominee. And the hard progressive wing will have to gnash their teeth as he advances a much more modest agenda, probably with a fair degree of success. Even if Biden does collapse and they nominate someone like Warren, she will likely be dealing with a Republican Senate (if not immediately, then definitely by 2022). And then she’ll be forced to adopt a moderate agenda, whether she wants to or not. And I expect that Pelosi will still be there: enraging Republicans, annoying her base…and getting things done.
If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d one day write a 3000-word blog post praising Nancy Pelosi (kinda), I’d have said you were crazy. I still disagree with her on almost everything. But it’s a sign of how crazy the times have gotten that many libertarians and conservatives — including this one — now see her as the voice of reason.