There is a moment when the boss or the parent or chaperones realizes, “We’re in charge! The inmates/employees/children don’t get to make the rules around here." And, by the way, “Clean up your language — show some respect!”
That’s not exactly what happened in the Democratic House caucus on Thursday, but it was close. The good news for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democratic Party and the country at large was that Pelosi didn’t have to be the bad guy. Her members, mostly moderates, and her nonwhite members did what they should have done a few months ago: Tell Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her three “squad” members — Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) — to knock it off.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday defended her treatment of four liberal freshman lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has accused her of targeting “newly elected women of color” through a series of public remarks dismissing their political influence inside the House.
Pelosi refused to respond directly to Ocasio-Cortez’s accusation at a Thursday news conference but said she had to speak out to defend her moderate members after Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide accused them of racist actions.
If you did not catch it, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, tweeted that the moderate Democrats were “New Southern Democrats. . . hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” That’s simply outrageous by any measure, especially considering that a healthy number of moderate members are nonwhite. Ocasio-Cortez’s staffer deleted that tweet, but his boss refused to take back her nearly equally obnoxious insinuation that Pelosi was singling her and her three colleagues out because they were not white. (This all followed a Pelosi interview with Maureen Dowd in which she said the four squad members are only four members and don’t have a following.)
The four have been tormenting not only Pelosi but also moderate members who, for example, decided to at least fund the facilities where Border Patrol has nearly run out of money and to fight about standards for children’s care later rather than let the money for housing and care of children and families run out. (Agree or disagree with their decision, which I think eminently sane, but this was not the crime of the century.) Thanks to the squad, the argument became a ludicrous indictment of Pelosi rather than a united attack on Republicans who refuse to agree to minimal standards of care for children.
At her news conference, Pelosi was tight-lipped. She didn’t directly side with the moderates. Instead she simply said, “Our members took offense at that. I addressed that. How they’re interpreting and carrying it to another place is up to them, but I’m not going to be discussing it any further.”
Her moderate allies, especially people of color, were more candid:
“All I can say is, I don’t know what she meant by that,” [Rep. Gregory W.] Meeks said of the “singling out” remarks. “Clearly the speaker has been inclusive of women of color. When you have a caucus like we have, that has been as diverse as ours, the speaker has been very inclusive.”
The tweet was “insulting” and “a big issue,” he added. “To try to compare this to what African Americans went through? . . . I think the African American community deserves an apology for that.”
Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), a New Democrat vice chair who is one of several moderate African Americans representing a Southern district, said she was subject to bigotry while growing up.
“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."
Sewell’s calls to Ocasio-Cortez were apparently ignored, never a smart way to treat your colleagues.
As someone who spent years pleading with Republican leaders to stand up to their unhinged backbenchers (the Freedom Caucus), I would say that while the Democratic leadership and its moderates could and should have done this earlier, it’s a relief to see them insist that the squad get a grip — and at the very least refrain from calling fellow members, including African Americans and Hispanics, racists.
The moderate members want Chakrabarti gone, a not unreasonable request, given that he is threatening to launch primary challenges to some incumbents. If they want Ocasio-Cortez to completely capitulate, they could instruct their chiefs of staff not to deal with Chakrabarti, but it’s not clear they want to push it that far.
A couple thoughts on the foregoing:
First, Ocasio-Cortez has become a Twitter star through her own showboating and a weird alliance with right-wing media that would like to portray her as the poster lady for all Democrats. In fact, she has only the power her colleagues consent to give her. If they allow themselves to be bullied into, for example, watering down a resolution on anti-Semitism or letting her drive the conversation of the Green New Deal, they have no one to blame but themselves. Moreover, the best way to disabuse Americans of the notion that all Democrats are as extreme as Ocasio-Cortez is to treat her like any other freshman member and admonish her when she behaves outrageously.
The only way backbenchers gain power is by intimidating those who actually have power. When Democratic leaders embrace the idea that the squad was not the reason they took the House majority (it was moderates flipping purple seats), they will, I am certain, feel quite liberated and be less guilt-ridden about refusing to kowtow to the four members. And Pelosi’s right: They are just four members. If they understand they’ve overplayed their hand, they might avoid being entirely frozen out and, worse, facing primary challenges by less extreme Democrats.
Second, we certainly hope this has positive ramifications for the presidential race and for the Democrats’ primaries in 2020 for House and Senate. Democrats don’t want to alienate or insult their most progressive members, but neither should they feel compelled to chase after the support of the far-left wing at the expense of every other member and the party as a whole. If the far left wants to pout and stay home, handing the election to Trump, history will treat it harshly.
Pelosi is right in one regard: that Democrats’ “diversity is their strength.” Hardcore progressives can win in deep-blue districts and motivate their followers; moderates can win in swing areas. But the thing about a caucus or a coalition is that no one can promote themselves at the expense of and detriment to others. Now that this message has been delivered loud and clear, perhaps Democrats can return to their agenda and to their battle against Trump. For the good of the country, let’s hope so.