The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion AOC’s squad has had it tough. But they need Pelosi to succeed.

Freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) on Capitol Hill  on Feb. 27.
Freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) on Capitol Hill on Feb. 27. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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It’s tough to come into a Congress that at some times functions like an exclusive club and at others like a dysfunctional family. The division that has spilled into public view between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and four freshman members of Congress known as “the Squad” is not a “catfight,” in the sexist phrasing of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. It is a disagreement between elected leaders about policy and strategy. It is also not a Democratic version of Republicans’ trouble with the Freedom Caucus — there are too many shared values and goals here.

The way these four young Democratic leaders — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — arrived in Washington makes finding their place especially complicated: knocking off well-liked incumbents; carrying personal stories that give voice to underrepresented people; bringing millions of followers on social media. Notably, they could have joined the “change” crowd to oppose Pelosi in her speaker’s bid. They did not. But there’s no denying it’s been a rough start.

From Pelosi’s vantage point, she has to keep unity among Democrats, having witnessed the demise of John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) when they failed to manage House Republicans. And, by all measures, she’s effective at her job: passing legislation, protecting her members and checking the president. Also, she knows what it’s like to hold the gavel and to lose it. Pelosi understands that in the House, the majority is the thing — without it, Democrats would be left to just make speeches and vote “no.” It’s not exactly her way or the highway, but she’s earned a little swag.

But not so fast.

The Squad, for its part, represents more than its members’ four singular votes in the House. To think otherwise significantly minimizes the influence of their national audience, including nearly 7 million Twitter followers, and their ability to capture the spotlight of traditional media. That’s not everything, but it’s not nothing. While winning and maintaining a House majority requires legislative success on Capitol Hill, it also requires foot soldiers who can bring out the vote come Election Day. In many swing districts, even with a sliver of progressives, they can provide the energy that Democrats will need to win, traveling to neighboring states and jurisdictions to make phone calls and knock on doors on their weekends. The Squad and the activists its members represent are not a nuisance to be dismissed.

Listen, I understand: As I have written before, I came to Congress fighting with the old establishment, but within months I came to realize that Pelosi can work for us even as she works to protect moderates. I learned quickly that I could not fall on every sword. It’s tough that progressives have to make compromises, but occasionally moderates should return the favor — and if progressives are lucky, that means they will be there longer, rise in the ranks faster and over time get more done for their constituents. But what I also understand is that Pelosi has to recognize she’s working in a different world.

The Squad is passionate. The four members have proved that they can elevate issues and draw public attention. In committee hearings, each demonstrates that she has done her homework. Even their legislative loss on the border funding bill was not a total loss. Recent internal incident reports from Customs and Border Protection underscore the Squad’s original concerns with the bill. That’s a legitimate policy debate.

What’s not legitimate is criticizing colleagues in the media or on social media. Sorry, Squad, but your senior staff members don’t have free speech rights if it’s your name that’s on the door. The House floor is smaller than it looks on television, and it’s tough to avoid a colleague or to work with someone you just assigned some nefarious motivation. And, if you’re a leader, you can’t call out a member in the media and then get mad when they clap back.

Pelosi also needs to realize that treating the Squad exactly like the colleagues she had last time she was speaker — including me — is a mistake. While she’s been masterful at navigating rough waters in the past, what matters now is how she wields that gavel going forward. In her 2008 memoir, “Know Your Power,” Pelosi notes her rise to power in a time with few women as role models and none at her level. This is a different time, with different media and a different generation of women who have come to power faster, younger and more diverse than ever before.

The bottom line is that the Squad (and progressives) need Pelosi to be successful in Congress. Pelosi has the gavel, and she can repair the breach so that everyone keeps their jobs. And all of us in the cheap seats need them to be at the same family reunion. The real battle is just too big.

Read more:

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Jennifer Rubin: About that AOC problem . . .

Paul Waldman: Why is Nancy Pelosi doing this?

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Lev Golinkin: ‘Never forget’ is dead. And it was killed on our watch.