The House Knocks Back
“I’m not going to be discussing it any further.”
That definitive statement was issued Thursday evening by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, but it came off as more of a wish. Or a prayer. Good luck with that, Madam Speaker.
With the Democratic Primary in a merciful news lull between debates, the focus of the news and commentariat has returned to the border issues, and the long-simmering discontent in the Democratic caucus that has erupted into a boil since passage of legislation funding aid for said border crisis. As it has for most of this legislative session, the focus swiftly turned to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “squad” of like-minded progressive newcomers to the House.
Even some progressives who admire AOC, as she’s nicknamed, told POLITICO that they worry she’s not using her notoriety effectively.
“She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?” said one House Democrat who’s in lockstep with Ocasio Cortez’s ideology.
“There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.”
It’s an open question whether Ocasio-Cortez can be checked.
Oh, wait, that wasn’t this week, that was back in January, when AOC had barely been in congress for week and had already begun to work with the Justice Democrats in singling out insufficiently progressive members for primary challenges.
Let’s try that again:
Thursday’s meeting threatened to open a new breach. After Democratic moderates joined with Republicans to pass an amendment…Pelosi said they should show more “courage” on politically sensitive votes, according to the people in the room. That struck some as tone-deaf, as did Ocasio-Cortez’s comments about primary challenges.
Ocasio-Cortez in a tweet said she was not making threats but warning that the Democratic defectors “were inadvertently making a list of targets for the GOP and for progressive advocates” by voting with Republicans.
The eruption followed weeks of growing tension between wings of the party. Freshmen who were elected on platforms of cleaning up big-money politics and fixing the heath-care system have found themselves voting on, and answering for, a different set of issues, and some are feeling the heat from their constituents.
Oh, oh dear, no, that wasn’t right either, that was from back in March, and it was a gun control legislation that time that saw 26 Democrats join the Republicans and draw the ire of the true believer caucus.
Ah, here it is, yesterday. So here’s the readers’ digest version of the fallout from that border funding bill and the ongoing rift between AOC and squad vs Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as broken down well by our friend Michael Siegel . Which brings us to this and the Speaker’s presser last evening:
And then the fallout began.
“Didn’t realize this needed to be said, but: you can be someone who does not personally harbor ill will towards a race, but through your actions still enable a racist system. And a lot of New Democrats and Blue Dogs did that today,” tweeted Saikat Chakrabarti, the chief of staff for Ocasio-Cortez. It was an extraordinary attack by a staff member on elected officials.
“This is in reference to my comparing Blue Dogs and New Democrats to 1940s Southern Democrats,” he wrote in another. “Southern Democrats enabled a racist system too. I have no idea how personally racist they all were. And we’re seeing the same dynamic play out now.”
That weekend, in trying to tamp down the divisions, Pelosi dismissed the influence Ocasio-Cortez and the squad — Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — in a Sunday newspaper column. But it seems to have only enhanced their stature.
Allies of the foursome swiftly came to their defense, suggesting Pelosi was marginalizing the women of color who are the new face of the party. Chakrabarti tweeted his own critique of Pelosi.
Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post on Wednesday that “the persistent singling out…it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful…the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
In a fundraising email Thursday, Justice Democrats, the progressive group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for office, criticized Pelosi for “singling out four new leaders who are progressive women of color.” The group is backing a handful of primary challengers to congressional Democrats, aiming for 25.
On Capitol Hill, the centrists got to work. Aides were quick to point out the co-chairwoman of the Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, is a refugee and the first Vietnamese-American elected to Congress. Two members of the coalition are African American lawmakers who lived through segregation. One of the members of the New Democratic Coalition, Rep. Terri Sewell, who is African-American, represents her hometown, Selma, Ala., as well as Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, and had reached out multiple times to Ocasio-Cortez after the tweets, to no response.
“I personally experienced Dixiecrats’ bigoted policies growing up,” Sewell said in a statement. “So, to even insinuate that I, or any other member of the New Dems, would promote policies that are racist and hateful or ones that would negatively impact communities of color is deeply offensive and couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., another co-chairman of the Blue Dogs and member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he has warned his staff off such actions. “It’s sad, it’s very sad.”
One freshman, Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who won what had been a Republican-held seat in New Jersey, said the centrist lawmakers “work really hard to build broad coalitions. When people in the progressive wing of the party disagree, I do feel like they’re not kind of lining up their sights on the right target.”
Progressives and those allied with the Ocasio-Cortez and the squad wanted to shift the debate.
One of those friendly fire targets, Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) whose primary challenger is being supported by the Justice Democrats, was less tactful:
“How dare they try to play the race card at this point,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, an African-American Democrat from Missouri who faces a primary challenge backed by allies of Ocasio-Cortez. He called those making the claims “ignorant” of racial history. “It shows the weakness of their argument. It’s damaging to this party and the internal workings of the Democratic party.”
Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, shared his view.
Lewis said it was “a little too far” for the staff member to compare lawmakers to segregationists.
“We all must work together, pull together for the country’s good,” the Georgia Democrat said in an interview. “The great majority of the caucus membership tends to work together and get along. We need to go forward, not backward.”
When the current row first exploded, AOC and her compatriots took umbrage with Pelosi properly placing them as just four members who have large amounts of social media and commentariat attention, but correctly reminded everyone that all the news stories, coverage, notoriety, and Twitter followers still get them exactly one vote each in the House of Representatives. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, among other things, with this tweet:
That public “whatever” is called public sentiment.
And wielding the power to shift it is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country. https://t.co/u6JtgwwRsk
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 7, 2019
The problem is the premise is flawed. Twitter isn’t public sentiment. Twitter is microclimate within the larger socio-political ecosystem. It’s a sliver of social media users, about 7% in America, and those user tend to be more urban, younger, with above-average incomes, and much more politically active than the general population.
In other words, on Twitter there are a lot more people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her like-minded colleagues and staff than in the real world.
Every two years, every member of the House of Representatives is up for re-election. Twitter does not get a vote. Nor do the 16,898 folks in NY-14 that propelled AOC past a stunned and out-of-touch Joe Crowley in their 2018 Democratic primary get to vote for anyone in any other congressional district. Besides, that district isn’t going to be anything but blue for the rest of our lifetimes.
The folks the Justice Democrats seem to want to expunge as part of their puritan purge of moderates are the one’s that gave the Democratic Party the House back, and Nancy Pelosi her second stint at the gavel. Back in February, NY Times did some home district visits with the freshmen who weren’t constantly in the news, and discovered that the folks back home had questions:
It was Democrats like Mr. McAdams, Ms. Stevens and Ms. Spanberger who secured the party’s House majority, political moderates who won districts often long represented by Republicans. Of the 67 Democrats in Congress’s freshman class, roughly a third prevailed in districts where President Trump won in 2016.
That serves as another indication that Democrats will have to confront the intraparty tussle between liberals and moderates to decide what they stand for, whom they appeal to and where their electoral future lies.
Last week, home for the first district workweek of their term, moderate Democrats got to see firsthand how the raised voices of a small but vocal number of lawmakers such as Representatives Tlaib, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are reverberating in far more marginal districts. Some, like Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey, were asked to account for the “uptick of negative rhetoric” coming from the freshman class…
“Many of the newly elected progressive freshmen probably “aren’t thinking that whatever they say might do harm to their class, and that’s not going to change,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the former majority leader. “The more progressive messaging is what sells right now. That’s what everyone is talking about, so it will be harder for moderates to break through. But that’s why it’s important to repeat their view of the world to their constituents.”
The key word there is “sell.” It’s telling that while the Justice Democrats were sending out fundraising emails and cranking up the rhetoric at their own leadership on social media for more money and more attention, the moderates were going to their leadership the old-fashioned way — in person. There is a generational aspect here, as to handling interpersonal communication and how it’s perceived. The yutes, of course, see nothing wrong with doing everything on the social media they are so fluent in, while the older generation can take umbrage and find it disrespectful whether it’s intended to be or not.
But for better or worse, closed-door caucus meetings and face-to-face hash-it-out sessions are still how things are done when it comes to legislating. Nancy Pelosi’s call to “come to me” instead of Tweeting out criticism is something most supervisors, leaders, or for that matter parents in the modern age have had to say. Pelosi and the moderates know about and have been through one thing the freshman have not yet: re-election. They know each and every one of them are on the ballot come November 2020, and the record they amass as a group has a lot of sway.
When Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers reviewed “Knock Down the House,” Netflix’s documentary on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other women running in 2018, he wrote this piece of insight:
You could argue that Knock Down the House is gilding the lily by giving so much of its running time to AOC, trading in her burgeoning popularity to win audiences for this Netflix doc. Fair enough. But the inherent and more crucial message in this probing film is that many women would have to fail in order for one to succeed. Lears, who served as her own cinematographer with Blotnick editing, makes it abundantly clear that the other female candidates under her microscope make points at least equally valid as AOC’s and that they would run again in the future.
There is a harbinger there. Mostly identical messages and ideologies, all women, and all with fire and passion to run for office, failed in St Louis, Nevada, and West Virginia for the other three subjects of the documentary. AOC became the superstar because she won, perfectly seizing the moment from an over-confident incumbent in a district she well reflects both in her person and politics.
Paula Jean Swearengin, the candidate for Senate in West Virginia in the documentary, was supported by the Justice Democrats after dust-up on a conference call with incumbent Senator Joe Manchin. The life-long moderate who still wears his blue dog credentials overtly to the annoyance of many in his party, was having none of their calls for a more progressive agenda to earn their support:
As Senator, Manchin made enemies of the progressive left as much as the hard right, but neither are large segments of the mountaineer electorate. During a conference call with supporters of Bernie Sanders who were challenging Manchin from the left, the Senator got contentious:
“What you ought to do is vote me out. Vote me out! I’m not changing. Find somebody else who can beat me and vote me out.”
In the 2018 Democratic primary, Manchin faced a challenger from the left (Swearengin), and won 69.8 percent of the vote.
The Justice Democrats and other die-hard progressives are convinced their message can, and should, work everywhere. But it doesn’t, it won’t, and if they really want to change things they will have to work with those they currently deride as “lesser” to get it done. Fight the power all you want, but if your greatest success in changing popular sentiment is to get those who you need as allies uniformly frustrated and angry at you, you are going about changing the world the wrong way.
For now, though, when the chips were down and legislation needed to be passed, they were four votes on the wrong side of a decisive defeat. Their poor reaction to that defeat is not serving them well, and is becoming a problem for the rest of the left side of the People’s House. It was inevitable that those seeking to knock down the house — the house who have their own constituencies, own concerns, and own political careers to worry about — would start knocking back.
“I warn you to travel in the middle course, Icarus, so that the waves may not weigh down your wings if you go too low, and so that the sun will not scorch your wings if you go too high. Stay between both,” Daedalus warned Icarus. Nancy Pelosi is not Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s father, but she has flown this path before, and escaped the political labyrinth more than once like the characters of mythology were attempting to do. Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the familiar tale thus:
when the boy began to rejoice in his bold flight
and deserted his leader, and attracted by a desire for the sky
he took his path [went] higher. The vicinity of the sun
softens the fragrant wax, the chains of the feathers;
the wax melted: he shook his bare arms
and lacking oarage he takes up no air,
By November of 2020, we will know if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Justice Democrats are the new wave, or the Icarian candidates about whom people wonder what went wrong for those who so quickly, if momentarily, soared so high.