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Nancy Pelosi’s clumsy rebuke of the liberals in her party

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Let’s start with what the speaker of the House said. Nancy Pelosi was talking to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about four vocal, liberal members of the House of Representatives who voted against an emergency border-funding bill recently because they said it didn’t go far enough to set humanitarian standards for children in custody.

Pelosi was not amused with their protest vote.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said in the interview, published Saturday. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

What she appeared to be saying was: Someone like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have 4.7 million Twitter followers, but she doesn’t hold sway in my House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) couldn’t even persuade other liberal lawmakers to vote against a House version of a border funding bill!

Technically, she is right, but it was the exact wrong thing for Pelosi to say to try to rein in a liberal wing that is pushing against her on everything from this border bill to impeaching Trump. It made her sound establishment-y with a capital E in a way that played right into their hands.

Tensions flare over Pelosi’s comments about four House Democratic women and border bill

What she seemed to mean as a dressing down, a warning for these lawmakers to get in line, they took as a challenge to publicly argue with her. That’s something that, for all the attention they’ve gotten as potential rabble rousers, they actually haven’t done much as members of Congress.

It’s 2019, Ocasio-Cortez argued in response Saturday, so Twitter followers do matter. Public influence is shaped by talking to the public, and change within the halls of power may be slow to happen, but that is how change happens.

Pelosi discounts these members of Congress’s soft power at the risk of sounding like she doesn’t understand how soft power is created in the social media era. President Trump’s most important and most-used medium of communication isn’t his press secretary, it’s his Twitter account, with nearly 62 million followers.

Part of the president’s appeal on the right and Ocasio-Cortez’s on the left is that they’re perceived as talking directly to their supporters; their tweets are a mainline for their unfiltered thoughts. (Never mind that a recent Pew Research study shows that most of America, population-wise and ideologically, is not on Twitter. Journalists pick up the newsworthy tweets and amplify them.)

Pelosi is right that, so far, the liberal wing of her caucus has yet to change the outcome of events within the House of Representatives.

Early on, liberals took a stand in a budget bill over a debate on how much to spend on domestic vs. military programs, forcing Pelosi to pull the vote. But they didn’t tank it entirely. Of the more than 80 House lawmakers who support beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump, most represent liberal districts, and Pelosi feels little pressure from them to consider impeachment. After threatening to stop a border bill two weeks ago to send more money for overwhelmed and broke government agencies dealing with a record number of migrants at the border, all Democrats but four voted for a House version of the bill — the four she was talking about in the interview.

So yeah, if Pelosi’s plan is to put up guardrails for her party to keep them from veering too far left ahead of the 2020 elections, these liberals have yet to technically veer her off that path.

But those liberals are certainly trying to take the wheel, and Pelosi just gave them another chance to do that. We probably wouldn’t be talking about these four liberal lawmakers if Pelosi hadn’t dismissed them so . . . well, dismissively.

Maybe a few years ago, dressing down her critics in the House Democratic Party so publicly would have quieted them. Pelosi is the most powerful Democrat right now, and she showed off why when she won a shutdown showdown with Trump this year.

But that’s not how liberal Democratic politics operates in this era. These four women — Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — won their seats last year precisely because they challenged the establishment.

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Pelosi’s comment allowed the four of them to go on Twitter or the Sunday talk shows and argue that they, more than the House Democratic establishment, are the ones focused on saving children from cages.

All four are women of color. Here’s what Tlaib told ABC News on Sunday about their “no” votes: “You know, people like us, people like me and Ayanna, Ilhan and Alexandria, we’re reflective of our nation in many ways. Guess what? We know what it feels like to be dehumanized. We know what it feels like to be brown and black in this country. And I’ll tell you right now, we’re not going to stand by and sit idly by and allow brown and dark-skinned children to be ripped away from their parents to be dehumanized.”

Pelosi’s problem with liberals in her party is not unlike the Catch-22 Republicans found themselves in during the 2016 presidential election: The more they criticized Trump, the more they boosted his cachet as a man of the people. Pelosi just gave her liberal colleagues a chance to argue that she’s the one who’s out of touch.