Nancy Pelosi didn’t get to where she is without learning how to troll with the best of them. And in an interview with USA Today released Monday, the speaker of the House again turns her gaze to the most famous/infamous freshman House member in recent memory: New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Asked about the difficulties of governing a caucus in the House that is being challenged at every turn by AOC and others like her – liberals elected in the past few cycles who are deeply skeptical of the party establishment – Pelosi said this: “While there are people who have a large number of Twitter followers, what’s important is that we have large numbers of votes on the floor of the House.”
Now, Pelosi didn’t mention AOC by name. But you’d have to be a real dummy to not understand who she was talking about. Ocasio-Cortez has 3.9 million Twitter followers, by far the most of any House member – including Pelosi (2.4 million followers). And AOC is an active Twitter user – often employing the social media site to call out what she believes to be unfairness within the Democratic Party or to push back on media stories about her.
Pelosi’s not-so-subtle shot at AOC isn’t an isolated event either. In February, she was asked about the “Green New Deal,” a sweeping legislative proposal that Ocasio-Cortez has been closely aligned with that aims to address the challenges of climate change. “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Pelosi said dismissively. “The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
If you think Pelosi’s comments on AOC are accidental and not meant to send a very clear message to AOC, you don’t know much about Pelosi. What message is she sending? This one: Look, I have been a liberal’s liberal for longer than you’ve been on earth. But not everyone House Democrat represents districts like we do. And we need to understand that they are governed by a different set of political realities. The most important thing we do isn’t score ideological points. It’s pass legislation as a united caucus –to show all Americans we are doing the work, not just playing partisan games.
Pelosi’s comments come amid a broader showdown between the party establishment and the newly-energized liberal wing. The leading edge of that fight is a decision by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the party, to ban giving any business (aka money) to consultants who work for candidates who primary sitting incumbents. The goal is simple: The threat of losing business will keep top consultants away from primary challengers. That will, theoretically, mean fewer primary challengers. Which establishment Democrats – led by DCCC Chair Rep. Cheri Bustos – believe is a very good thing.
AOC, who herself ousted an incumbent to claim her seat in 2018, took to Twitter to protest the move. She called the policy “extremely divisive & harmful to the party” and recommended that small-dollar donors “pause” on making contributions to the DCCC and instead focus on giving to vulnerable incumbents in swing seats.
These fault lines within the House Democratic caucus are, in some ways, the natural result of winning the majority. The more seats you control, the more likely it is that you have people from all over the ideological spectrum – each of whom wants their way to be the way.
It’s also part of an even broader fight happening within the Democratic Party at the moment as activists and candidates navigate a post-Obama and post-Clinton landscape. At the presidential level you have Joe Biden, the former vice president as the ur-establishment figure while Bernie Sanders – and a number of other candidates – are offering a more liberal, outsider perspective.
Pelosi, for her part, is matter-of-fact when it comes to the political realities facing the party – and the challenges from liberals to move the center of gravity further to the left. “As I say to my own district, ‘You go out and elect 218 people, just like San Francisco, then we can talk,’” she told USA Today.