Nancy Pelosi “cannot be seen by her party as being weak on negotiating with Donald Trump,” says President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. And “Nancy Pelosi is only looking to protect her speakership … and that’s why she’s unwilling to negotiate with us,” according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. These were excuses by the Trump administration to shift blame for the government shutdown. But they also were intended to suggest that Pelosi’s hold on the speaker’s gavel is tenuous, buffeted by a left-wing insurgency led by ambitious, impatient newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The reality is that Pelosi grabbed the gavel on Thursday with a firm grip. The first two battles led by Ocasio-Cortez and her Instagramming army of rebels ran smack into Pelosi’s establishment fortress. When Ocasio-Cortez made waves by loudly demanding a new committee tasked with drafting a “Green New Deal,” Pelosi quietly brushed it aside last week, as if to say: Kids, brush up on your Schoolhouse Rock. Then after a meek surrender, Ocasio-Cortez, along with Rep. Ro Khanna, hastily tried to derail restoration of the so-called pay-as-you-go rule or “PAYGO”—a limitation on new spending without offsets that some on the left see as a threat to their big-ticket agenda—only to watch the chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus side with Pelosi and nip the rebellion in the bud.
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The Green New Deal gambit is the more significant flop. Ocasio-Cortez led a campaign for a turbocharged climate change committee that would be required to produce a bill zeroing out fossil fuels in 10 years, along with a federal job guarantee to mitigate any economic shocks. She also insisted the committee have subpoena power and only include members of Congress who don’t accept contributions from donors in the fossil fuel industry.
None of Ocasio-Cortez’s demands were accepted. Instead, in the rules resolution for the new Congress, Pelosi created a Select Committee on the Climate Crisis tasked with proposing climate policy recommendations to existing committees, similar to the process that Pelosi established in her first stint as speaker. The person Pelosi tapped to be chair of the select committee, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, made clear that the Green New Deal wouldn’t be the sole focus of the committee’s work, and that she could not insist that every member reject donations from the fossil fuel industry (though Castor did say she would stop accepting them.) Castor, who is not a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was likely picked because she has been the No. 2 Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and can be expected to respect that committee’s jurisdiction over climate policy.
The response from Ocasio-Cortez and her allies was negative but limited. The harshest response came from the new climate activist group Sunrise, which declared the rejection of the Green New Deal resolution to be “a dereliction of duty from Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Leadership.” Sunrise and the leftist PAC Justice Democrats also took aim at Castor for having a retirement account that includes a mutual fund which invests in utility companies. But Ocasio-Cortez stood down. Although she lamented on Twitter that “even in our own party, it‘s apparently too controversial to ask that we keep oil+gas co’s away from enviro policy,” she didn’t declare her opposition to the rules package on the grounds it lacked a Green New Deal.
Then, when the rules package was formally released on Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna did announce their opposition, but over PAYGO, instead of a Green New Deal. On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez described PAYGO as a “dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress on healthcare+other leg.”
But in the rush to pick a new fight, she failed to rally her fellow progressives. The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan released a statement clarifying that the PAYGO rule was simply an implementation of the PAYGO law. (And it’s a pretty weak law. Congress can waive its own restrictions, and often has.) Jayapal and Pocan assured progressives that they would propose legislation to change the law, a move that bolstered Pelosi and sidelined a messy intraparty debate.
Rounds 1 and 2 between the Democratic establishment and the Tea Party of the Left went to the establishment.
What went wrong for progressives?
The first thing Ocasio-Cortez did when she stormed into the Capitol on November 13 was lead, alongside Sunrise, a livestreamed protest at Pelosi’s office demanding adoption of her Green New Deal committee resolution. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi immediately strained to characterize the spectacle as something cooperative and collaborative. “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change,” tweeted Pelosi. But Ocasio-Cortez must have hoped that grassroots pressure would squeeze Pelosi. And Pelosi does not care for being squeezed.
Soon after the protests, Ocasio-Cortez’s Capitol protest was validated by several media outlets that raved about her social media strategy. The New York Times marveled at how “she tries to bring her followers into the political process.” The progressive news site ThinkProgress enthused over how she used Twitter and Instagram—she now has more than one million followers on each platform—to popularize the concept of a Green New Deal.
But her strategy to win support was fundamentally flawed, starting with the proposal itself. The proposed Green New Deal committee structure allowed no room for alternative proposals, even though other robust policy ideas to tackle the climate crisis exist. A new committee that could produce only one particular solution to the climate crisis not only provoked a turf battle with the incoming chairs of existing environmental committees, but it also forced members of Congress to choose between those chairs and an idea with scant specifics and enormous political risks.
And the demand to deny committee seats to anyone who takes money from people in the fossil fuel industry, while useful for brandishing moral superiority, further weakens the prospects for coalition-building. In order to craft legislation that can eventually pass, including surviving the Senate supermajority threshold, some members of Congress who represent states and districts that are dependent on the fossil fuel industry will need to be on board. Telling a large faction of lawmakers that their views and concerns, and those of their constituents, are irrelevant to the legislative process is not the way to get them to “Aye.”
Ocasio-Cortez tried to overwhelm these institutional roadblocks through brute grassroots force. But her big social media numbers are undercut by the midterm election results. The Democrats who won in red states and districts did not run on an expansive democratic socialist agenda, so there is little reason for other members of Congress to believe her Instagram and Twitter followers represent a powerful geographic cross section of America.
Moreover, there is no electoral mandate for a Green New Deal. Nobody running in competitive districts ran on it. Even Ocasio-Cortez didn’t prioritize the idea; in the viral video that fueled her upset primary victory, she didn’t even utter the word “climate.” The activists themselves have barely begun to make their case. So why would Pelosi feel pressure to yoke her entire caucus to an untested proposition?
There’s an old adage in politics that lawn signs don’t vote. Perhaps we can add a new corollary: Instagram followers don’t pass legislation.
Pelosi surely knows as much, which explains why she was unfazed by Ocasio-Cortez’s attempted show of force. After Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi traded niceties following the Sunrise protest, some speculated that the two were actively cooperating and we shouldn’t assume intraparty friction. But Pelosi has not exactly hidden her disdain with those on the activist left who push proposals she considers foolish. In a New York Times interview conducted before the midterm elections but published shortly afterward, she sarcastically said, “I have those who want to be for impeachment and for abolishing ICE … Two really winning issues for us, right? In the districts we have to win? I don’t even think they’re the right thing to do.”
This is what distinguishes Pelosi from Republican speakers: She does not hesitate to keep her party’s ideologues in check. She did not go out of her way to antagonize those protesting in her office, including Ocasio-Cortez (after all, she did need the New Yorker’s vote for speaker). But nor she did see any reason to reward their grandstanding.
Like Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez does not appear inclined to alter her approach to politics. In a late Tuesday night Twitter post, she offered, “A few social media ideas for public servants looking to build an audience,” namely, policy proclamations that fit Twitter’s character limit, such as “Single-Payer Medicare for All,” “End For-Profit Prisons & ICE Detention” and of course, “Fight for a #GreenNewDeal.”
But so long as she is more focused on building an audience than building cases for her positions among her congressional peers, she will likely find herself on the short end of more intraparty battles. Pelosi, meanwhile, won back the gavel thanks to renewed respect from her colleagues, and from many rank-and-file Democrats, after dismantling a revolt on her right flank. But it’s her deft management of her left flank that allows her to maintain order and present a united front when negotiating with Republicans. If Trump and his administration think they are going to be dealing with a speaker running scared of her base, then they haven’t been paying attention.