For months now, almost since the opening of Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been at odds with each other. It started with gentle gibes, Pelosi talking euphemistically about AOC’s “enthusiasm,” for example. But over time it has grown more contentious, and now AOC is fighting back.
AOC says 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.” She has even gone so far to somewhat bizarrely claim that she was loaded with excellent committee assignments just to keep her busy. Too busy to perform some other function, one surmises, but its not clear what that other function is.
It was always going to come to this, for a couple of reasons. One is the threat Pelosi believes AOC represents to moderate Democrats in Congress. Another is their relative ages and investment horizon in the House. And finally, there is a sharp ideological difference between how these two powerful women view America, its institutions, and its moral authority.
The threat that AOC and her Justice Democrat colleagues, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and others from deep blue districts pose to moderate Democrats is two-fold and very serious. The first aspect is straight-up primary challenges, such as AOC’s, which defeated moderate House powerhouse Joe Crowley in 2018. Already, Rep. Henry Cuellar from Texas is in the crosshairs for a Justice Democrats primary, and he isn’t the only one.
These primary challenges are a headache for a House leadership that is trying to hold together a fractured caucus while preparing for a presidential year election far less friendly to their cause than a midterm. They have attempted to enact rules to limit how firms that work with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) may also work with insurgent candidates, though this move in and of itself has brought fire from Justice Democrats calling it unfair.
The second concern is that moderate Democrats in swing districts will be inexorably tied to the crazier aspects of AOC and Justice Democrat’s agenda. And it doesn’t help that so many of the Democratic candidates for president seem to be jumping on these bandwagons. Pelosi does not want these moderates to have to defend the Green New Deal, college loan forgiveness, and free health care for illegal immigrants on the trail. She knows that could spell disaster and Republican victory.
In a very real way, age also seems to be playing into the discord between the Speaker and the freshman. This has less to do with the idea that they have generationally different ideologies, though, as we will see below that may also but true, it has more to do with investment horizons. Young investors in the stock market are advised to take greater risks, the idea is that it will balance out in time, older investors are usually advised to be more cautious given the limited time ahead of them.
So it is with politics and legislation. Pelosi knows that the next time the Democrats lose the House will be the end of her time as Speaker for good. If she has things she wishes to achieve they must be achieved in the next several years, not the next several decades. AOC, on the other hand, can afford to play a very long game here; she can afford to lose the House in some elections over the next 40 years as long as she is moving the overall trends to the left. These are very different motivations that are hard to meld into a single approach.
The last set of differences really does seem to be ideological. Pelosi and others in House leadership have tried to pay lip service to the wild progressive ideas and the talk of socialism, but it’s clearly not where their heart is. They know they can’t afford to alienate young voters infatuated with the Justice Democrats, but they also can’t just hand over the keys to the party.
AOC, Tlaib, and others often say they just want a seat at the table, that they are being shut out. But generally, when progressives ask for a seat at the table it’s so they can tell everyone what to order and make someone else pay for it. And while that might be the logical conclusion to Pelosi’s more moderate government giveaway schemes, those full implications, expressed by Justice Democrats, clearly give her pause.
This fight will not be settled anytime soon. There are those on the left who think it’s a good thing for them, and that may be so in the long term if the Overton window shifts further left. But in the meantime, Pelosi has legitimate concerns about staying in power, and AOC can smell the blood in the water.