During a 60 Minutes profile that aired Sunday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked a question that she doesn’t seem to love: Can she keep a caucus that has both more centrist members and more socialists from falling apart?
“By and large, whatever orientation they came to Congress with,” Pelosi told interviewer Lesley Stahl, “they know that we have to hold the center, that we have to go down the mainstream.”
When Stahl began another question about managing the “wings” of the party, including “[Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and her group,” Pelosi interrupted her.
“That’s like five people,” Pelosi said.
It was the latest in a series of flip comments Pelosi and the Democratic majority leader, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, have made in recent months minimizing the influence that progressives like Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar have in the caucus. In February, Pelosi referred to the Green New Deal, a still-nascent resolution that excited Republican political operatives almost as much as it excited progressives, as “the green dream or whatever … nobody knows what it is but they’re for it, right?” She also has repeatedly taken impeachment off the table. Meanwhile, in a March speech at the AIPAC conference, shortly after much of the caucus had reprimanded Omar for comments that some perceived as anti-Semitic, Hoyer said to an appreciative audience that “by the way, there are 62 freshman Democrats. You hear me? 62. Not three.” The following day, his office issued a statement clearing up the remarks, which were interpreted as a slight to progressive members who’ve energized parts of the electorate.
“Our Caucus has a dynamic freshman class of sixty-three new Members, all of whom are doing a great job and bringing unique perspectives and backgrounds to their work in the House,” the statement read. “In pointing out that much of the press attention has been on a few new Members in particular, I was lamenting that the media does not appear to be paying enough attention to other excellent new Members who are also bringing important new energy and diverse perspectives to our Caucus and to the Congress.”
Taking questions at a Monday event in London, where she’s traveling during the current congressional retreat, Pelosi expanded further on her own view of the lefties who’ve been dominating news coverage but not necessarily the House floor agenda. While describing representatives like Ocasio-Cortez as “wonderful” members of the Democratic caucus, she said that districts like Ocasio Cortez’s—or Pelosi’s San Francisco district—could elect the glass of water from which she was drinking if there were a “D” next to it on the ballot line. Those members, and their more radical plans, are not majority makers.
“But the 43 districts [we flipped from Republican officeholders] were right down the middle: mainstream, hold-the-center victories,” she said. “And if we’re going to be helping the 1 in 5 children in America who goes to sleep hungry at night, who lives in poverty in our country, we have to win.”
It’s not that complicated to understand why Pelosi isn’t obeying the will of the far left of her caucus, and why she’s pursuing, say, a health care agenda more in line with tweaking Obamacare’s existing structure rather than something more disruptive like single-payer. Running a center-left agenda to protect “front-line” incumbents with big targets on their backs in 2020 is a path that just about any Democratic speaker would follow, especially in a divided government.
The more interesting question is why, and for how much longer, the left wing of her caucus will allow her to pursue this course. Republican House leaders didn’t always feel it was electorally useful to pursue, say, a hard-line immigration strategy, but the right-wing bloc of the caucus used its leverage, often, to ensure they did. And the Republican “establishment” equivalent of any one of these comments—it’s just a few of them; the green dream or whatever—would have sparked an incredible backlash from the GOP’s base and those backbenchers. Pelosi must not be feeling such a backlash, because she keeps casually tossing backhanded remarks the left’s way. For top Democrats, what passes for restraint is when aides use anonymity to crudely trash-talk the left wing of the caucus: “What we’re here to do is get something done, not introduce legislative proposals that are Bernie Sanders’ wet dreams,” one senior Democratic aide told Politico last week.
Pelosi might only really consider changing her posture toward the emboldened left flank of the party if the left flank of the party emboldens. Progressives thought they might have had a victory last week when their opposition over spending cuts helped scuttle a House Democratic budget vote, but Pelosi and Hoyer found a procedural workaround that allowed them to proceed writing spending bills anyway. A couple of days later, at the House Democratic retreat, Progressive Caucus co-chairs Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan insisted that the spending negotiations were still in their early phase, and that there were still plenty of leverage points ahead in the budget process where they might gum up the works if they don’t get a boost in domestic spending. But does that mean they’re prepared to vote down a budget agreement on the floor? To vote down an appropriations bill? Until there’s a move like that, which would embarrass House Democratic leaders and likely earn the leftmost members of the party the enmity of their colleagues, we’ll continue seeing Pelosi giving them the dismissive flicks of the wrist as she works to “hold the center” ahead of 2020.
And maybe that is, as Pelosi told Lesley Stahl, “fine” with them. Maybe those two or three green-dreamers, or whatever, understand that the central goal of the next two years is to unite the government: to defeat Trump, take the Senate, and then wage these ideological battles when their legislation has a chance of becoming law. Pelosi let on, in her London remarks, to this strategy of patience ahead of 2020, after which the full “exuberances” of the caucus could be properly channeled.
“We must win,” she said. “When we win, and we have the White House and we have that, then we can expand our exuberances to some other things.”