She makes a show of being respectful here, praising Ocasio-Cortez and mentioning her own home district as one where an inanimate object nominated by the Democratic Party would win. But this is noteworthy as another example of Pelosi trying to navigate between the center and the left at a moment when the energy in the party is on one side. What should she say when Trump accuses Ilhan Omar of being her “leader”? What should she do when Rolling Stone invites her to pose with Omar and AOC for its cover? How do you hug someone with one arm to impress your base while pushing them away with another to impress swing voters? She’s trying to have it both ways vis-a-vis the progressive freshmen in her caucus because she has no other choice.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi takes another shot at socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), says a “glass of water” with a “D” next to it “would win” in Ocasio-Cortez's district. pic.twitter.com/sPbhEUTeir
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) April 15, 2019
I don’t mean to diminish Ocasio-Cortez’s achievement in winning her race, Pelosi hastens to add, but … she is diminishing it. It’s true that the general election is a walkover in NY-14 but AOC famously didn’t win an open seat there. She beat one of Pelosi’s top deputies and a man who might have succeeded her as Speaker, Joe Crowley, in a contested primary. Pelosi’s point in the clip is that focusing on hard leftists like AOC misses the forest for the trees, as it was a tide of moderates winning purple districts in the midterms that swept Democrats back into power. But Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory was hugely significant as evidence that a left-wing tea-party-ish movement could not only mount a formidable challenger to an incumbent as prominent as Crowley but actually win.
To rephrase that in Pelosi-ish terms, AOC’s victory demonstrated that a glass of water with “democratic socialist” after its name can win in a blue district. That’s momentous, and cemented the left’s belief after Bernie’s run in 2016 that their policies are more viable electorally, certainly in Democratic strongholds, than the conventional wisdom has it. To dismiss Ocasio-Cortez’s win as a sort of fait accompli because her district is solidly Democratic is to dismiss the strength of progressivism’s influence on the party right now, with that influence to intensify if Sanders bounces out to a lead in the primaries. I get why Pelosi would want to downplay it but that doesn’t make downplaying it less disingenuous.
If Bernie were to win the presidency, Pelosi will find herself in even more of a bind as Speaker. Right now the left tolerates her leadership, partly because they respect her skill as a caucus manager, partly because they appreciate her past service to the party, partly because she knows how to get Trump’s goat, and partly because she’s promised to step down after two terms. Whether they’ll continue to tolerate her as a moderating force on the caucus if the socialist revolution succeeds in bringing Sanders to power is another matter. She may be headed for John Boehner’s niche, the establishment Speaker uncomfortably presiding over a radicalizing caucus who’s grudgingly accepted by them at first but who proves a bit too milquetoast in the end. Ed has a post coming up about leftists already chafing at Pelosi’s both-ways-ism towards Ilhan Omar; they’re also annoyed at Cheri Bustos, head of the DCCC and a potential future Speaker herself, for warning outside progressive groups not to work on primary challenges to incumbent Democrats. This is likely to get worse rather than better.
Maybe Pelosi and Bustos will each tack left themselves if Election Day next year delivers President Bernie to us, signaling a new socialist future for America. But if Sanders doesn’t succeed I don’t know how this gets resolved short-term. The left will believe that it’s viable nationally after 2020 pretty much regardless of the outcome: Trump won’t win in a landslide under any scenario and whoever the Democratic nominee ends up being is a cinch to run to the left of Hillary Clinton. There may yet be some successful AOC-style progressive primary challenges to Democratic members of Congress next year as well, reinforcing the belief that socialism is at least what solidly Democratic jurisdictions want. What do Pelosi and Bustos do in 2021 if Trump’s still president but their caucus has shifted further left on balance?