This week, conditions between the most powerful Democrat and her left flank deteriorated to perhaps the lowest point in Nancy Pelosi’s career as Speaker of the House. Like many stories of Democratic incompetence and gullibility, it all began with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—who reportedly went back on an agreement he made with Nancy Pelosi—and passed Mitch McConnell’s Senate bill appropriating no-strings-attached funds for Trump’s crimes against humanity at the border. Pelosi was backed in to a corner by the fact that she had to pass a bill, and Schumer essentially dropped McConnell’s work at her doorstep and said “it’s your problem now!”
But she didn’t have to pass the same exact bill. The most powerful person in the House could have added some amendments, or at least put up some kind of a public fight to try to get some concessions from the GOP. This is what AOC and the progressive caucus in Congress wanted at minimum, yet like Schumer, Pelosi simply passed Republican priorities, hanging all their hope on a completely unenforceable request to Trump, asking that he create better conditions for children and their families concentrated in his camps along the border.
This caused plenty of those on the left in Congress to publicly lash out on Twitter, and yesterday, Politico reported that Nancy Pelosi “scolded progressives in a closed-door meeting.” Sounding like a mob boss, the Speaker reportedly said:
“So, again, you got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just OK.”
The Speaker believes that tweeting criticisms of the Democratic Party is unreasonable and beyond the pale, yet it's perfectly fine for her to run to the New York Times' Maureen Dowd and say “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got.”
This is gaslighting straight out of the Trump playbook. Pelosi is using one example (the final bill sent back to the Senate that had “The Squad” as the only Democrats voting against it) to isolate four members of a much, much larger political bloc than Pelosi makes it sound. The Congressional Progressive Caucus existed long before Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did, and it currently has 98 members, which amounts to 41.7% of the entire Democratic House caucus. It is not just four people who Pelosi has battled with on progressive issues. Over 100 House Democrats have publicly backed Medicare for All, and 89 have sponsored what Pelosi derisively deemed “the Green Dream or whatever.”
With one quote to one of Pelosi's favorite media sycophants, she erased nearly half of her party in order to “protect” about 20 Democratic moderates. This is the norm to Pelosi's decades of rule, not the exception. Even though the moderate “Problem Solvers Caucus” challenged her leadership and AOC and the rest of the CPC stood firm behind her, she still prioritizes a small cabal of not very liberal Democrats over a significant chunk of the party that is far more representative of the Democratic electorate.
Now, there is a cynical mathematical logic to this in that in 2016, Rothenberg & Gonzalez Political Report found that just 40 of the 435 House races were competitive, and the seats Democrats gained from these moderates is effectively what swung the House to the left in 2018. That said, the notion that giving money with no strings attached to Trump's child concentration camps is a “moderate” position needed to win “moderate” districts is a kind of logic that could only exist through years of beltway brainwashing.
Pelosi is making herself increasingly isolated within her party by capitulating to Trump, reneging on the investigations she promised, and giving him a blank check for his border monstrosity, all while attacking the most popular members of her party. Even longtime Pelosi stans like The West Wing's Bradley Whitford are at their wits end with her current “leadership.”
If this weren't all so infuriatingly heartbreaking, it would be kind of funny. This anecdote from The Intercept about this meeting is a metaphor for the fecklessness of Pelosi's current leadership.
At the end of the meeting, Pelosi sought to heal the wounds she had freshly reopened, and asked a preacher to come forward and lead a prayer so that the rifts in the Democratic Party may be healed. No preacher came forward, as none were present, so Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., led the faithful. “His prayer was brief and powerful and incredibly well received,” said Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the caucus chair. “He simply prayed for a spirit of discernment, the spirit of being able to do the right thing and to move forward collectively.”
Why Nancy Pelosi Is The Way She Is
Ultimately, the only person who can answer this question with any kind of authority is the Speaker. History helps gives us some insight into Pelosi’s mindset, as she came in to office during the wipeouts of the 1970s and 1980s that still traumatize her generation of Democrats to this very day. The lesson from those elections is that the electorate truly did want to move right, but in the wake of the W. Bush administration’s failures, that dynamic shifted. The Obama-Trump voter emerged, and plenty of polls and studies prove that the overall political sentiment in this country is liberal (in fact, it’s currently the most liberal mood ever recorded).
Yet, judging solely by the way Nancy Pelosi governs, it seems as if she is forever stuck in 1984—completely unable to change her political instincts forged in the Democratic failures of McGovern, Carter and Mondale—despite decades of evidence demonstrating that the three new generations added to the electorate since the Nixon-Reagan era have different political priorities than the Boomers and older generations had when they were the dominant force in politics in America. In short, Pelosi is ignoring the politics of the upward trending line here to govern on behalf of the downward trending line, which definitely doesn’t remind me of the same shortsighted political strategy of any current presidents.
It’s a fact that moderates were a central part of capturing the House this past November. Pelosi should protect them, but with this border bill, we see the anxieties of this old Democratic mindset replacing the facts of reality. Thanks to the humiliations of the 1970s and 1980s, the position of the Republican Party is considered first by Dem leadership, because according to this submissive logic that has become dogma in the party, the GOP’s position is necessary to determine how far left the moderate Democrats are allowed to move. Democrats have removed their own agency with this mindset, and they govern completely by reacting to (perceived) political weaknesses.
This recent immigration catastrophe is a perfect example of how this deleterious logic works. Despite having the lowest approval rating in his own state of any politician, Mitch McConnell’s position is accepted as the popular starting point for negotiations, and thanks to the efforts of moderate Democrats in the House and Senate, it became the endpoint as well. Mitch McConnell does not represent the majority of the American people, nor do moderate Democrats like Pelosi when they pass McConnell’s legislation, and yet, this somehow has to be said out loud because that’s just where the Democratic Party leadership is these days.
Democrats seem to be ignoring polls which show that six in ten Americans, nine out of ten Democrats, and six out of ten Independents disapprove of the treatment that these refugees are receiving at the border, and instead of fighting to better their treatment (or shut down the camps entirely), Dems are letting themselves get spooked by shadows, and as a result are aligning their politics with the perverted “rules” of the beltway bubble. The GOP has ultimate power by controlling the Senate, therefore we have no choice but compromise on their terms, so the broken Democratic logic goes. This ignores the fact that Congress is an investigatory body and they have a mandate to oversee the executive, not capitulate to its every demand.
This bankrupt reasoning also ignores the mandate given to the Democrats by the largest midterm electoral victory of all time—which was a formal order from the American people to check the evils of the most unpopular president in polling history. Nancy Pelosi promised to fight the Trump administration upon her party’s historic win, and instead, she has spent just as much time fighting her left flank as she has the administration. When it comes to people with power like what Pelosi has, what you do is who you are, and her actions on immigration in the first half-year of her rule over the House have aligned her more with the Trump Administration’s political priorities than those of—at minimum—40% of her party.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.