I've long been an admirer of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for both her arsenal of legislative skills and her strategic vision. But lately she has me wondering.
Since we in the news media focus more on conflict than anything else, there's always a temptation to characterize any intraparty disagreement as an enormous throwdown. So let's just be clear that what's happening between Pelosi and four freshman Democratic representatives is not that.
It does, however, bring up some broader questions about how a party's establishment and its activist wing do or don't cooperate to achieve their common goals, and in particular whether Pelosi is hurting or helping the Democratic Party's cause at the moment.
The latest flare-up came over a bill to provide funding for the border and what kind of safeguards it would contain to ensure that the money actually helped those being held in squalid conditions instead of being diverted by the Trump administration. Pelosi eventually accepted a Senate-passed version with fewer protections, angering some more liberal Democrats.
Asked about it in an interview with Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, Pelosi took the opportunity to throw some shade:
"I asked Pelosi whether, after being the subject of so many you-go-girl memes for literally clapping back at Trump, it was jarring to get a bad headline like the one in HuffPost that day -- 'What The Hell Is Nancy Pelosi Doing?' The article described the outrage of the Squad, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts are known.
"Pelosi feels that the four made themselves irrelevant to the process by voting against 'our bill,' as she put it, which she felt was the strongest one she could get. 'All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,' she said. 'But they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got.' "
For the life of me I can't understand why Pelosi can't just say, "I get where they're coming from but we just happen to disagree on this, and that's fine," and leave it at that. But she seems unable to keep herself from showing contempt for the fact that younger members like Ocasio-Cortez have large social media followings ("their public whatever and their Twitter world"), as though she doesn't understand this newfangled technology and therefore it must be stupid and irrelevant. She's often equally dismissive of their policy priorities, calling the Green New Deal "the green dream or whatever they call it."
So Ocasio-Cortez responded:
"That public 'whatever' is called public sentiment. And wielding the power to shift it is how we actually achieve meaningful change in this country."
To a degree, they're both playing appropriate roles: The liberals are agitating for more sweeping and rapid change, and Pelosi, like most establishment leaders, wants to act more carefully. But either side can take that too far. The broader context in which this is taking place is a disagreement about the best way for the Democratic Party to oppose President Trump, and in particular to make it less likely that he'll win reelection. Among the party's activist base there's a growing belief that Pelosi has essentially decided to sit back and wait for Trump to do himself in.
So for instance, Pelosi and House Ways and Means Committee chair Richard Neal acted like getting Trump's tax returns was a matter of no particular urgency, waiting months before filing an official demand for them, and then months more before suing when the administration refused. The response to the administration's refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas has been less than vigorous.
And then, of course, there's impeachment. There are various legitimate opinions you might have on its merits, but here's what Pelosi told Dowd: "The thing is that, he every day practically self-impeaches by obstructing justice and ignoring the subpoenas." This "self-impeachment" idea is one she has brought up repeatedly.
Liberals hear that and are disgusted, because saying the president is "self-impeaching" means Democrats don't actually have to do anything, they just need to wait for him to destroy himself. Which was what a lot of Democrats thought in the summer and fall of 2016.
Pelosi counters that key to her majority in the House is not liberal members from safe districts but members from swing districts, who must take more care to communicate moderation and reasonableness.
Which is true as far as it goes. But Pelosi seems gripped by the belief that voters will punish Democrats if the party is too mean to Trump, or uses its institutional power too aggressively and fails to Get Things Done.
But ask yourself: When was the last time voters punished a party for being too aggressive in opposing the other side?
Did they punish Republicans for opposing Barack Obama too strongly, and for not getting things done? The GOP took back both the House and the Senate while Obama was president. Did the voters punish Republicans for stealing a Supreme Court seat? Did they punish them for mounting eight separate Benghazi investigations?
That's just not how it works. It's especially not how it works in presidential campaigns. The 2020 election won't be a referendum on whether Democrats displayed sufficient decorum in their dealings with Trump. It will be a referendum on Trump, and a contest of personalities between him and the individual whom Democrats nominate to oppose him.
Not only that, Pelosi's majority depends more on what happens in the presidential race than anything else. In 2016, the correlation between presidential votes and House votes was a near-perfect .97, higher than it had ever been before. That's the reality of our polarized electorate, where every race is nationalized.
To put it simply, if the Democrat wins in 2020, Democrats will hold their House majority too. If Trump wins, they might lose it. What Pelosi can do at this point to make that election turn out the way she wants is to marshal every tool available to her to damage Trump.
It's hard to blame more liberal Democrats for thinking she's doing less than she could. And whatever you think about impeachment or any particular piece of legislation, at a minimum Pelosi could treat the activist base with a little less contempt.