The Root of the Conflict Between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez

Up until now, I have avoided writing about the back-and-forth between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That is primarily because it is the kind of thing that the media loves to exploit to spread one of their favorite memes about “Democrats in disarray.” But there is so much misinformation being spread about the conflict that perhaps it is time to clarify.

Contrary to what a lot of people have suggested, the whole thing started when Occasio-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” (he has since deleted the tweet). There was also the fact that Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called moderate Democrats members of the “Child Abuse Caucus” on Twitter because they supported the Senate’s version of the emergency humanitarian package.

One can imagine that House Democrats like Terri Sewell (D-AL), Sharice Davids (D-KS), and Colin Allred (-TX)—all people of color—might have taken offense at being accused of “doing to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40’s,”as well as being referred to as child abusers. That is why Speaker Pelosi held a closed-door meeting with her caucus to scold them for tweeting attacks on each other.

The policy difference that drove those attacks was the fact that the so-called “squad,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, objected to the votes of Democrats in support of the border funding bill. Pelosi has never called the squad out for their votes against the bill, her issue was with their personal attacks about fellow caucus members.

During her press conference on Thursday, Pelosi made that all clear.

They [the Squad] took offense because I addressed, at the bequest of my members, an offensive tweet that came out of one of the member’s office that referenced our blue dogs and our new Dems essentially as segregationists. Our members took offense at that, I addressed that…

We respect the value of every member of our caucus. The diversity of it all is a wonderful thing. Diversity is our strength, unity is our power.

I was struck by her reference to the fact that “unity is our power.” That goes to the heart of Pelosi’s job as speaker. Her task is to keep her caucus united, because anything they accomplish is dependent of having the votes that are necessary to do so. During the conversation the speaker had with Maureen Dowd, she addressed the issue with this.

Pelosi feels that the four made themselves irrelevant to the process by voting against “our bill,” as she put it, which she felt was the strongest one she could get. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

That goes to the heart of the difference between Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi. To demonstrate, the former explained how she sees her job.

Her chief of staff expanded on that thought.

While Pelosi sees her job as keeping her caucus united in order to have the votes to pass legislation, Ocasio-Cortez is focused on public opinion and fighting—even if that means losing.

People can differ in terms of which approach they support. But the facts are that the differences between these two women have more to do with their institutional roles than they do with strategy. Having been in Ocasio-Cortez’s shoes as a progressive representative from San Francisco, Pelosi is likely very well aware of what it means to take on a fight that you can afford to lose. But as speaker of the House, she isn’t prepared to simply have the entire Democratic caucus lose the fight.

That is why there is one thing that all Democrats should agree on, as articulated by Ron Klain.

A debate about ideas is healthy, a debate about motives is not. The Democrats should hash out their differences in 2020 without slashing up one another — not casting aspirations on each other’s integrity, motivation or intentions. It is that latter path that creates an opening for Trump’s reelection in 2020.

Of course, having a debate about ideas doesn’t feed the media’s hunger for a “Democrats in disarray” story, nor does it provide the opposition with the ability to talk about “cat fights.” But as Pelosi said, “diversity is our strength, unity is our power.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.