Don’t Blame Nancy Pelosi for Doing Her Job

The Democratic leader knows how to count votes and take the flak for vulnerable House members.

Nancy Pelosi Jens Stoltenberg
American House speaker Nancy Pelosi meets with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Washington DC, April 3 (NATO)

The left-versus-center feud in the Democratic Party is spilling out into the open. House speaker Nancy Pelosi has urged progressive lawmakers not to tweet out their grievances. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most popular among them, has accused Pelosi of “singling out” newly elected women of color.

The immediate cause of the quarrel is a $4.6 billion border bill I praised here last week as a rare bipartisan compromise. Ocasio-Cortez was one of four Democrats who voted against it. So did Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley.

Other Democrats weren’t happy with the deal either. It doesn’t go far enough to improve conditions in detention centers, but at least it makes money available to provide migrants and their children with basic sanitation and medication. Among the critics were Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal and Wisconsin’s Mark Pocan, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Pocan even disparaged the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus”, which is trying to find a solution to the border crisis that both parties can live with, as the “Child Abuse Caucus”.

But even they calculated that Democrats were unlikely to get anything better by Republicans, who still control the Senate and the presidency. Pelosi herself argued that the migrant children — who have suffered abdominal conditions at the hands of Donald Trump’s border enforcement agency — had to “come first” and Democrats should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley can disagree, but to suggest that their ethnicity played a role in Pelosi’s decisionmaking does a disservice to a woman who, in the last Congress, voted more left-wing than 80 percent of House Democrats.

Taking the flak

It’s not just on the border that the woke left doesn’t see eye to eye with the speaker. Pelosi has dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal as the “green dream” and taken Omar and Tlaib to task for their pro-Palestinian views. Omar and Jayapal are co-sponsors of legislation to make college free. Tlaib has proposed a $3,000 monthly basic income.

But Pelosi isn’t the only one who disagrees with them. The majority of Democrats do. In some cases the vast majority.

Jonathan Bernstein argues at Bloomberg View that it is Pelosi’s job to take the flak for them:

There’s a big contrast here between Pelosi and her predecessor, Paul Ryan. Ryan excelled at one thing: ducking blame. This made him entirely ill-suited for the role. Speakers sign up for scapegoat duty. The good ones — Pelosi, John Boehner, Tip O’Neill — have very few star moments and lots of episodes where they take the brunt of abuse from their own party.

The reelection of progressives like Ocasio-Cortez is unlikely to keep Pelosi up at night. They represent safe Democratic districts. She should be more worried about those center-left Democrats who won in Republican-leaning districts in 2018. The party can’t afford to lose them in 2020.

Counting votes

Both Bernstein and Kevin Drum of the left-wing website Mother Jones point out that Pelosi is good at another part of her job: counting votes.

There are always partisans who don’t understand vote counts, argues Bernstein, or pretend that they don’t in order to “hint to the rank and file that the real reason party leaders aren’t acting is because they’re afraid or weak or don’t really believe in the cause.”

Tell your voters long enough that they are being stabbed in the back by ineffectual leaders and eventually they might vote for a leader who insists that he or she alone can fix a broken system.

Drum writes that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley may get a lot of press, “but they couldn’t even persuade their fellow progressives to hold out for a better [border] bill, let alone any of the centrists.”

Public opinion

Drum gives the four some credit, though. They know they don’t have the votes, but their goal is to move public opinion:

[T]he way you do that is by holding out from the majority in the most conspicuous possible way.

Maybe they’ll succeed. American public opinion has moved to the left on such issues as gay rights, gun control and health care. More Americans than ever believe climate change will pose a serious threat in their lifetimes — but it’s still only 45 percent. Democrats have become more sympathetic to the Palestinians, but Republicans have become more pro-Israel.

Progressives in blue districts can think long term. Pelosi must focus on 2020. That is why, under his leadership, Democrats have passed dozens of bills that are wildly popular, from pay-as-you-go, which calls for tax increases or budget cuts to fund new spending, to lower prescription drug prices to raising funding for veterans care to saving net neutrality to background checks on gun purchases to returning the United States to the Paris climate agreement.

None of these bills are getting through the Republican-controlled Senate, but that isn’t the point. The point is to show that Democrats have a viable governing program that is far from radical.

When Trump inevitably accuses his Democratic challenger, whoever that might be, of wanting to bring socialism to America, they can point to the litany of bills Pelosi has passed with in many cases unanimous Democratic support to prove the party’s program is actually reasonable and mainstream.