On Saturday, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published an interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that reads like an excerpt from The Great Gatsby reimagined for the 21st century. In Dowd’s telling, Pelosi savored chocolates “with delight,” decked out in “purple Manolo heels” as she regaled Dowd with war stories about “her vineyard getaway in Napa” and the time U2′s lead singer attended a speech she gave in Ireland.
“Bono came,” she told Dowd, apparently with a bright grin. “And that was really fabulous.”
Pelosi has had a rough go of it lately, and the Dowd interview is the strongest evidence yet that the most powerful Democrat in America is losing touch with the country. Pelosi dismissed calls to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, claiming that Trump “self-impeaches” practically “every day” ― whatever that means. She downplayed former President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern as “doing a dumb thing as a guy” ― a curious position in the Me Too era ― and suggested that Trump himself might have helped Democrats secure liberal priorities in a recent immigration bill had he not been so busy in North Korea.
But the interview really went off the rails when Pelosi lit into freshmen Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who all recently voted against that immigration bill, objecting to billions of dollars in fresh funding for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement ― two agencies the president has relied on to wage a campaign of terror against children, refugees and communities of color.
As Pelosi was devoting time from her congressional recess to badmouthing her colleagues, the targets of her wrath ― Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley ― were spending much of their time away from Capitol Hill visiting Trump’s border camps and detailing their horrors to the public.
According to Pelosi, the opposition from Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley didn’t matter, because Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley don’t matter. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Ninety-five Democrats voted against the border bill Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent over from the Senate, which Pelosi chose not to amend. Some of Pelosi’s top lieutenants voted nay. The progressive freshmen were not isolated and alone. They spoke for 40 percent of the caucus.
The Dowd interview inspired an immediate outcry from progressives, but Pelosi’s office is standing firm. Pelosi aide Drew Hammill emphasized to HuffPost that when Pelosi talked to Trump before the border bill passed, the president really was rattled by bad press and claimed he was open to humanitarian concessions. Talks soured when Trump left town for the North Korea talks and Pence took over. Ocasio-Cortez and Co. had been criticizing the bill for weeks and refusing to vote for anything the speaker proposed, trashing the bill after it passed. Pelosi wasn’t attacking members of her caucus out of the blue, just responding to criticism, he said.
The trouble, of course, is that the bill really is bad, which is why Democrats are now pleading with the Trump administration to do nice things with their new funding. And of course, the progressive crew weren’t the only Democrats creating procedural headaches. Pelosi could be badmouthing Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who organized a flank of conservative Democrats to blow up a House package that put humanitarian strings on the border funding.
This is not how a savvy leader rallies her troops. And it’s certainly not the way anyone attuned to the demographics of the modern Democratic Party talks about its next generation of political talent.
Indeed, a political neophyte wouldn’t know from Pelosi’s comments or virtually any of her public acts this year that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley are members of the speaker’s own party, much less that the four women supported Pelosi in the leadership battle this past fall. When conservative Democrats backed by Gottheimer challenged Pelosi from the right after the November elections, the lefty freshmen stuck with Pelosi and urged their supporters to do the same. Pelosi has rewarded them with persistent contempt.
Politics is a messy business at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. But Pelosi’s leadership is damaging the Democratic Party. By catering to a very narrow, very elite slice of the electorate, she has removed herself from the mainstream of party thought and distanced her caucus from the interests of working people ― who vastly outnumber the people who base their votes on pricey footwear.
“This is not how a savvy leader rallies her troops. And it’s certainly not the way anyone attuned to the demographics of the modern Democratic Party talks about its next generation of political talent.”
Three-quarters of Americans support raising taxes on the rich. Sixty-one percent of Republican voters say the gap between the rich and the poor is a “moderate” or “very big” problem. In the 2018 midterm elections, voters in Missouri and Arkansas voted to raise the minimum wage as voters in Utah, Idaho and Nebraska voted to expand Medicaid ― socialized medicine! ― to 300,000 additional Americans. The partisan divide on immigration is the sharpest it has ever been, but even here, Democrats have an opportunity: Sixty-two percent of Americans say immigrants “strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents,” compared to 28 percent who say immigrants are a “burden.”
You won’t win a Republican primary running as a liberal Democrat, but you very well might win over a solid chunk of Republicans in a general election ― and that’s more than enough to carry the day. Ask Sherrod Brown or Tammy Baldwin, two of the most liberal members of the Senate, who represent Rust Belt states Donald Trump won in 2016.
Pelosi instead seems to be betting the party’s fortunes on voters like Dowd, whose most recent column accuses Democrats of engaging in “bilingual pandering” during last week’s presidential primary debates and jeopardizing the party’s prospects with “talk about busing and decriminalizing illegal border crossings and abolishing private health insurance.” Her argument for Pelosi’s leadership prowess relies entirely on the self-evidence of this claim: Go too far left, she insists, and you’ll lose the middle.
Okay ― but particularly on economic issues, the middle is the left.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Pelosi chose to assail four women of color with progressive voting records in an interview with a wealthy columnist who gets weirded out by Spanish. Or maybe they’re both living in the same bubble, their politics based on the same outdated elite assumptions.
In 2016, the Democratic Party’s campaign theme was “Stronger Together,” an unabashed effort to bring women, people of color and young people into the party coalition. Voters of color make up 43 percent of the Democratic Party’s electorate today, the highest share on record. The Democratic Party has been growing steadily more progressive since 2001, with self-identified “liberals” now substantially outnumbering “moderates” and “conservatives” among the party faithful. This plurality is who Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley represent.
In 2019, Pelosi stands athwart history, calling for an addendum. Democrats are Stronger Together ― but don’t expect her to actually listen to any of them.