WASHINGTON ― In just over a month as speaker, Nancy Pelosi has deftly navigated Democrats through the shutdown and solidified her position atop the House Democratic Caucus. But at what point does the reluctance of progressives to hit back at Pelosi’s mounting slights start looking less like sophistication and more like an indication that “the resurgent left” is soft?
When The Intercept revealed this week that Pelosi’s top health care staffer met with Blue Cross Blue Shield executives and criticized Medicare for All, progressives generally took a pass on attacking Pelosi.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) refused to take the bait. “Until I hear my speaker say that there’s an issue, I’m not ― for me, it has to come from her directly,” Tlaib said.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said she hadn’t read the story but wouldn’t criticize Democratic leadership when asked if they had done enough at this point to advance Medicare for All.
And even though the sponsor of the Medicare for All bill, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), said she was “not happy, obviously,” she praised Pelosi’s support for hearings on the legislation.
When Pelosi dismissively called the Green New Deal “the green dream or whatever they call it” — “nobody knows what it is,” Pelosi added — Ocasio-Cortez once again avoided criticizing Pelosi.
“I think it is a dream,” Ocasio-Cortez said Thursday.
Other progressives have shown Pelosi similar deference, despite the obvious mocking tone she used to describe the resolution.
“I wasn’t there. I haven’t seen what she said. And honestly, I don’t really care,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said Thursday, “because I know Nancy Pelosi, I know her commitment to doing something big on climate, and I know her record.”
Pelosi seems to have avoided the sort of criticism conservatives would dish out to a Republican speaker if they felt dissed because progressives generally believe Pelosi is on their side. The speaker did clean up her comments a bit about the Green New Deal during her weekly press conference Thursday, though she also managed a certain backhanded condescension in doing so, saying she welcomed the “enthusiasm” of the Green New Deal as well as “the other proposals that are out there.”
Meanwhile, progressives have gone out of their way to stay aligned with Pelosi. After the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis didn’t get the subpoena power progressives wanted, most liberals stayed quiet about it. When Ocasio-Cortez was asked why she didn’t join the committee on Thursday after Pelosi invited her to be on it, the New York lawmaker said it was because she was busy with her other committees ― and she didn’t mention the lack of subpoena power.
Progressives have also stayed in line on a number of other potential flashpoints. When Democratic leadership decided not to censure Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) ― instead offering a resolution so watered down that King himself voted for it ― hardly anyone spoke up. (One of the only members who did speak out was the only member who voted against the resolution, longtime Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who authored an actual censure resolution against King.)
At the beginning of the Congress, all but three Democrats ― Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) ― voted for a rules package that included pay-as-you-go provisions that progressives thought were harmful to the Medicare for All cause. And Democrats have stayed in line thus far on efforts to impeach President Donald Trump or even to just acquire his tax returns.
But Pelosi owes much of her power to progressives. They never made an issue out of the California Democrat’s history of taking corporate PAC donations, and Pelosi quickly locked up their support during the speaker’s race, even though high-profile Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez had initially wavered on Pelosi. With the more liberal wing behind her, Pelosi was able to define her opposition as a group of white, moderate men, which in turn put pressure on those Democrats to get behind her.
Obviously, the ability to frame issues so shrewdly is part of Pelosi’s power. But she often has such a strong hand because Democrats stick together. During the shutdown, there were hardly any Democrats demanding that Pelosi move away from her original demand that there be no money for a border wall. Again, progressives were key in making that the default Democratic position, though Pelosi also won because she was able to keep every other Democrat in line as well.
But at what point do progressives start taking Pelosi’s shots personally? When do her efforts to protect vulnerable Democrats from a truly liberal agenda become a problem? And when are progressives going to demand more from their leadership than some placating hearings or a toothless select committee?
“What we all want is to get something done. And I think we want to move the ball forward. We don’t just want to do press conferences. I mean, we want to achieve things.”
For now, progressives look interested in playing the long game, knowing that none of the bills they really want to pass will become law with Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling the Senate. Progressives seem to have taken the view that even voting on their dream legislation would do more to divide Democrats than to advance their cause.
Jayapal, the lead author of the Medicare for All bill, told HuffPost on Wednesday that she does have commitments to get hearings on her measure, starting with the Rules Committee under the control of longtime liberal champion Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and then moving to the Budget Committee. She hopes to eventually get hearings in the Energy and Commerce Committee as well as in Ways and Means, but she hasn’t asked for a vote.
You could say the same about the Green New Deal. While Democratic lawmakers made a big show of their Green New Deal rollout on Thursday, the legislation at this point is just a nonbinding resolution with principles for future legislation. It’s a plan to come up with a plan ― and it may never get a vote either.
But progressives aren’t complaining. They’re not slamming Pelosi, and they’re trying to focus on where there is consensus, like on shoring up Obamacare, lowering drug prices and building initial support for their environmental legislation.
And while Pelosi may take an occasional shot or let them down legislatively, they’re not airing their grievances publicly ― at least not yet. (Asked for a comment about this story, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, offered: “We agree with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez that the caucus will not be ‘divided by whatever narrative.’”)
Leadership is also looking to stay on the good side of the progressives, despite the occasional slip of the tongue from Pelosi.
“What we all want is to get something done,” McGovern told HuffPost on Thursday. “And I think we want to move the ball forward. We don’t just want to do press conferences. I mean, we want to achieve things.”
Daniel Marans contributed reporting.