The Slatest

AOC and “the Squad” Are Actually the Sensible, Mainstream Centrists in Their Fight With Nancy Pelosi

Pressley, wearing a light-colored jacket, speaks intently into a microphone while seated.
Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley at a Capitol Hill hearing about migrant detention centers on July 10. Zach Gibson/Getty Images

The conflict between freshman House progressives, self-identified moderate Democrats, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now entering its third week. It began when Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and 91 other Democrats voted against a funding bill involving border facilities in late June. After the bill passed anyway with the blessing of Pelosi and numerous moderate Dems, members of “the Squad”—the poppy nickname that the four high-profile freshman reps have adopted—complained in harsh terms about what they saw as a pathetic cave, to which Pelosi responded by telling the New York Times that AOC et. al don’t have “any following” outside of “their public whatever and their Twitter world.” Additional arcane intracaucus feuding ensued on social media.

Now that even President Donald Trump has gotten involved—suggesting that if the four frosh are so disenchanted they should go back to the countries they “came from,” which for three of them would be the country of America—it’s worth going back to remember how this entire fight started. Was “the Squad” selfishly insisting that the Democratic Party take a radical, borderline un-American position at the expense of more vulnerable purple-district members—or were they reflecting what most of their constituents, and maybe even most voters everywhere, say they want?

The original dispute between the freshman lefties and the ostensibly pragmatic/moderate members of the “Blue Dog” and “Problem Solvers” caucuses turned on whether the House should have taken extra time to negotiate with the Senate in order to insert care standards and accountability measures, like a requirement that Congress must be notified within 24 hours after the death of a child in custody, into the border-funding bill. The progressives wanted to take the time to advocate for such concessions, while, in the words of the Washington Post, the moderates “wanted to see the House act to address the border crisis, not get locked in a conflict with the Senate, especially with Congress about to leave Washington for a week-long Fourth of July recess.” The Blue Dogs moreover wanted to protect funding for Border Patrol guards and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

You can see what the moderates were thinking: They would score a bipartisan feather in their caps by passing an administration-friendly bill that included money for “border security” in addition to humanitarian relief, just in time for America’s birthday.

Like many Democratic initiatives, this reasoning relies on a ’90s-style model of what the average voter wants—a collaborative relationship between the president and Congress, say, and conservative-leaning immigration policies. But that model doesn’t accord with polling in the Trump era. In 2018, large majorities of voters across the U.S. consistently told pollsters that they wanted to see a Democratic Congress elected to act as “a check” on the administration. This was true, as my colleague William Saletan pointed out at the time, not just in traditionally liberal areas but in swing states Trump won. In Arizona and Ohio, for example, voters—all voters, not just Democrats—said by 16-percentage-point margins (!) that their congressional votes were meant to “send a message that we need more Democrats to be a check and balance to Donald Trump” rather than to elect “Republicans who will help Donald Trump pass his agenda.”

Trump’s positions on border issues, meanwhile, are also landslide-level unpopular. A late-June CNN poll found that Americans disapprove of the way that Trump is “handling immigration” by a 57–40 percent margin, that 60 percent support “allowing refugees from central American countries to seek asylum in the United States” while only 35 percent do not, and that they choose “developing a plan to allow some people living in the U.S. illegally to become legal residents” over “deporting all people living in the U.S. illegally” 80 percent to 15 percent. The gap is too large to be just a partisan one, and a January Quinnipiac poll found that 50 percent of independents trusted Democrats in Congress more than Trump on the issue of border security against only 37 percent who trusted Trump, while an April Washington Post–ABC poll of “suburban” voters found that they disapproved, 42–33 percent, of the president’s “handling of illegal immigration.”

Given all of this, it would seem that the Democratic faction that’s playing smart politics is the one advocating for tougher oversight of the Trump administration on an issue where swing voters generally take the Dems’ side, and not the faction that wants to accommodate the administration and fund ICE.

While future attacks on “the Squad” may not be as overtly racist as Trump’s was on Sunday, it’s likely that he and other Republicans will try in 2020 to tie every possible Democrat to AOC/Omar/Pressley/Tlaib’s purportedly repellent brand of America-hating communism, while pundits will wonder whether their prominence is a sign that the party is headed for a George McGovern–style moment of disastrous overreach. But however far left their other policy positions may be, in this case, it was the alleged bomb-throwing extremists who were trying to get the Democratic Party to appeal to the mainstream center, and the alleged pragmatists who wouldn’t let them do it.