But liberals seethed that Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic leaders did too little, too late. They were equally baffled by Pelosi’s quip seeming to dismiss Ocasio-Cortez during a CBS “60 Minutes” interview Sunday, suggesting her “wing” of the party included “like five people.”
“What we’re seeing here is old-guard leadership trying to marginalize some of the big change agents who were elected in 2018 because they’re afraid of what it means to their leadership in the future,” said Charles Chamberlain, chair of the liberal group Democracy for America.
Using Pelosi’s oft-repeated phrase — “Diversity is our strength and unity is our power” — Chamberlain said that when the speaker “tries to marginalize some of the newest leaders who are fighting hard . . . it’s not a good look and it’s not a smart strategy.”
The tensions underscore Democrats’ struggle to discern the best way to respond to Trump and the GOP’s attacks on their far-left flank, criticism frequently centered on women of color. The president has made Omar (Minn.) and Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) favorite foils, accusing all Democrats of becoming “socialists” like Ocasio-Cortez or “anti-Israel,” as Omar frequently criticizes Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians.
Pelosi, eager to protect her newfound majority and looking ahead to the 2020 elections, has made it a point to put distance between her party and the policies espoused by some of her new, liberal members, including both women. Republicans have tried to use the liberal policy initiatives against all Democrats. Pelosi purposely has cast the proposals as aspirational, telling The Washington Post she was “agnostic” about Medicare-for-all compared with the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and calling Ocasio-Cortez’s environmental Green New Deal “the green dream.”
Pelosi’s allies say it’s all to protect the House majority, a rationale Pelosi cited while taking questions during a Monday appearance at the London School of Economics. Asked about her “60 Minutes” comments about Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi called the New York liberal “wonderful” but argued that the 43 districts Democrats flipped in 2018 were “right down the middle.”
“I share those values, but we must win,” she said, arguing that the glass of water she was holding could carry a district like hers if it had a “D” for Democrat next to its name.
Pelosi’s office defended her response to Trump’s attacks on Omar. A spokesman noted that Pelosi was traveling to Europe on Friday when Trump issued his tweet about a single phrase of Omar’s that “some people did something” on 9/11 and that the speaker did express solidarity with the freshman lawmaker Saturday, writing: “The memory of 9/11 is sacred ground, and any discussion of it must be done with reverence.”
“The president shouldn’t use the painful images of 9/11 for a political attack,” Pelosi tweeted.
But Omar’s allies said that wasn’t good enough. The tweet, they said, didn’t mention the Minnesota Democrat at all and could even be read as a rebuke of her.
On Sunday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the other Muslim congresswoman, went so far as to accuse the Democratic leadership of using people of color to highlight diversity but ignoring them when it mattered — though she did not name Pelosi in the missive.
“They put us in photos when they want to show our party is diverse,” Tlaib wrote, retweeting messages claiming Democrats used women of color as “props.” “However, when we ask to be at the table, or speak up about issues that impact who we are, what we fight for & why we ran in the first place, we are ignored. To truly honor our diversity is to never silence us.”
Earlier this year, Pelosi appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine with Omar, Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.).
Over the weekend, more than 200 outside groups signed onto a letter of support for Omar. One reason, said several group leaders who signed, was to show Pelosi and her leadership team that it was acceptable to defend Omar.
“People are just frustrated with how weak the Democratic Party leadership’s response has been on this,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for the liberal group Justice Democrats that has talked about challenging Democratic incumbents. “The response has been so tepid and lackluster. . . . They seem to be running away from it because they’re afraid of controversy and conflict.”
Shahid also criticized Pelosi on Twitter for her comments about Ocasio-Cortez, a lawmaker his group helped elect.
On Sunday, Pelosi issued a statement saying she spoke with the House sergeant-at-arms to ensure that U.S. Capitol Police would keep Omar safe amid new death threats following Trump’s attacks and Saturday conversations with law enforcement. Omar thanked Pelosi for her statement.
On Monday, Pelosi called Trump’s actions “wrong,” saying, “I don’t think any president of the United States should use the tragedy of 9/11 as a political tool.”
The level of outrage among liberals varies. While many lawmakers have privately criticized Pelosi about her response to Omar, few would go on the record — a sign of either deep respect for her long-held position or fear of reprisal. Even several of Omar’s friends in Congress declined to give interviews on the topic Monday.
Indeed, liberals in recent days have chosen not to fight Pelosi on a number of battles. While the congressional Progressive Caucus last week sank a leadership-backed budget bill, its passage was not critical, allowing the left to send a warning to leadership without burning bridges or scuttling a must-pass bill.
Liberals at the same time stood down after vowing to fight legislation benefiting the lucrative tax preparation industry last week. They also have yet to follow up their criticism of a recent Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee policy banning strategists who work for those challenging incumbents in primaries, what they’ve deemed a “blacklist.”
Pelosi, in the meantime, doesn’t appear interested in changing her strategy. In a recent Washington Post interview, she spoke at length about how she doesn’t think her caucus is any more liberal than it was before the 2018 election, despite the influx of lawmakers such as Ocasio-Cortez and Omar.
The 2020 presidential candidates may be more liberal, she allowed, but “in our caucus we’ve always been progressive.”
“But our agenda is one that worked in all the districts,” she said. “Lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, cleaner government. So, no, I mean, there are a few people who are espousing a more progressive public position, it doesn’t mean that other people support or oppose it. It’s how to get it done.”