Pelosi Battles AOC in Democratic Party Power Struggle

NEWS ANALYSIS: Socialist firebrand Ocasio-Cortez threatens the House speaker’s courting of swing voters, but how far apart are they on social issues?

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (l) performs a ceremonial swearing-in for U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (r), D-N.Y., at the start of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 3.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (l) performs a ceremonial swearing-in for U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (r), D-N.Y., at the start of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 3. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a 29-year-old self-identified socialist, wants to push her party hard to the left of the political mainstream, and that campaign has proved to be a major headache for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

With an eye on the 2020 presidential election, 79-year-old Pelosi is working hard to enforce party unity and woo swing voters back to the Democratic fold. But Ocasio-Cortez (better known as AOC) and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, all newly elected to Congress in 2018, have openly challenged her leadership and criticized centrist Democrats in vulnerable seats, raising fears that the young firebrands could drive voters back into President Donald Trump’s arms.

The battle between Pelosi and the four women, dubbed “The Squad,” had been simmering for months, but finally exploded into public view after Speaker Pelosi decided to support a bipartisan border aid package, and they took her to task on social media and cable news shows.

“I do not believe we should be throwing more money to ICE,” Ocasio-Cortez told CNN’s Jake Tapper, regarding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “I believe what we should ideally be doing is passing a pure humanitarian bill."

Then, over the past weekend, President Trump stepped into the fight, tweeting an incendiary remark that served to briefly unite the fractious Democrats against the White House.

“‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe,” tweeted Trump, should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”

Three of the congresswomen were born in the United States; Omar, 36, a refugee from Somalia, received asylum in the United States at the age of 12. The tweet fueled a storm of outrage, and on July 17, the House voted along mostly party lines to pass a nonbinding resolution that condemned as racist Trump’s attacks against the four congresswomen of color.

The president has not responded, and pundits on both sides of the partisan divide say he will continue to mine the internal battle, in an attempt to present “The Squad” as the real face of the Democratic Party and in the process strengthen his own re-election chances.


Generational and Ideological Divide

At the same time, experts contacted by the Register emphasized that the Democrats’ open dispute was about more than party leadership: It revealed a growing generational and ideological divide on policies and tactics that could fuel the party’s fragmentation, with uncertain consequences for the U.S. political system as a whole.

“Pelosi is a traditional party leader,” and her mission is to attract “the votes of the large middle of the political spectrum,” Bradley Lewis, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.

“Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are not,” Lewis added. “They would be considered very radical figures just a short time ago, but instead of opting for the European strategy of organizing new political parties and movements, they have organized a faction within the Democratic Party — like Trump in the GOP.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s moves include support for new political organizations, such as Justice Democrats, that seek to recruit left-wing activists to challenge moderate Democrat incumbents. And Omar, a Muslim, has repeatedly been reprimanded for her remarks about Israel and Jewish support for the key U.S. ally that “played into anti-Semitic tropes.”

The refusal to hew to party doctrine “makes large coalitions more difficult to maintain, and it renders more and more problematic the notion of a common good that can be an intelligible object of consensus for voters,” said Lewis. “Politics becomes the business of niche marketing and is therefore increasingly fragmented.” 

Yet when it comes to social issues, like abortion, Lewis sees little difference in substance between the two lawmakers.

“Pelosi chose to de-emphasize abortion in the last election for tactical reasons,” he said. “But her position has not changed, and it is the same position as Ocasio-Cortez and the others,” suggesting that at least some of the friction instead was over political messaging and optics.

Ocasio-Cortez’s rapid rise from New York bartender to junior House representative and currently a very public face of her party is a modern success story that highlights both the growing power of social media in U.S. politics and many young Americans’ sympathy for socialist policies.

Operating from a safe district seat, she has leveraged her 4.8 million followers on Twitter to challenge the party establishment. In the past six months, she has called for impeachment proceedings against Trump and the abolishment of ICE.


Green New Deal Debate

But the Green New Deal resolution, released earlier this year and co-sponsored by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., remains AOC’s signature policy statement and endorses a host of major reforms, from net-zero carbon emissions within a decade to universal health care and the elimination of nuclear power.

Her many critics assert that the costs of implementing such a plan could reach $93 trillion, and Pelosi has dismissed the resolution as a non-starter. But Democratic presidential front-runner and former Vice President Joseph Biden released a plan that “adopts the rhetoric — and at times, many of the actual policy proposals — of the Green New Deal resolution,” The Washington Post reported in June.

GOP lawmakers have cited the plan as further evidence of their long-held belief that fears of climate change due to human interference are being cynically manipulated and that the real political goal of movement activists is the socialization of the U.S. economy. Environmental groups have rejected that argument as a smear, but it got a boost after Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, acknowledged as much in a July 10 Washington Post Magazine profile.

The Green New Deal “wasn’t originally a climate thing at all,” said Chakrabarti, in the story. Rather, he said he sees it “as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”

The founding engineer at the hugely successful payments processing company Stripe, Chakrabarti segued from Silicon Valley into a new career as a progressive thought leader and activist who recruited Ocasio-Cortez and then orchestrated an upset victory over an incumbent Democrat.


‘Radical’ Face and Feel

Judging by recent assessments of Ocasio-Cortez’s impact on national politics, that bet has paid off handsomely.

In the short time since she has held office, the telegenic Ocasio-Cortez “has very effectively changed the ideological shape of the Democratic Party with her de facto open-borders policy and other extremisms,” said Peggy Noonan in a July 12 column for The Wall Street Journal that suggested “The Squad” had injected a more “radical” face and feel to the party.

The day after Noonan’s column was posted, Pressley took a tough line at the liberal Netroots Nation conference, directing a crowd of activists to embrace hard-core identity politics or find other work.

“We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice,” said Pressley, an African American, who still appeared to be challenging the Democratic Party Caucus’ decision to back the  border bill.

“We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice,” she added. “We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up, because we need you to represent that voice.”

Commentators have linked this brand of harsh rhetoric to a broad, generational decline in support for classical liberal politics and practices that looked for common ground and protected individual freedoms.

“Democrats of a certain age were shaped by classic liberalism: people who witnessed religious and civil wars and built structures to restrain fanaticism,” said New York Times columnist David Brooks, whereas younger activists want to “‘blow up’ these structures” and are impatient with an incrementalist path to a more just society.

“They do not share liberalism’s belief in the primacy of free speech,” he added, in a reference to recent attempts to enforce pronoun usage that reflects gender-identity politics — a burgeoning culture-war issue that has gained political traction with astonishing speed.

Andrew Abela, the dean of the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, acknowledged the rise in support for socialism among young Americans.

“The older generation lived through 1989,” Abela told the Register, reflecting back on the year that the Berlin Wall fell. “We saw the euphoria of those who came out from under the yoke of socialism, and we saw how it damaged individual lives.”

“Younger people are more open to the idea that there are different kinds of socialism. But every kind of socialism involves a reduction of human freedom, because any attempt to take away the right of private property ultimately takes away liberty,” said Abela.


Similar Goals

Mary Hasson, the director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., research center, did not dispute Ocasio-Cortez’s impact on U.S. politics. But she questioned whether the young congresswoman’s evident blind spots — a seeming ignorance of “the need for coalitions, alliances and strategic timing” and an apparent belief that “she can simply dictate a different course of action by self-promotion and the power of social media” — could hamper her political movement.

“She’s the stereotypical impatient and proud radical … clashing with the veteran who shares most of the same ideological goals but who gained her power by mastering the political system,” she told the Register. 

That said, Hasson agreed that “both Pelosi and AOC share similar ideological goals — abortion on demand, gender ‘rights’ according to self-determination, restricting religious liberty to freedom to worship (in private or in church).”

“The differences I see between them on these issues are more about ‘how’ to get there,” she said.

“The Squad” will press ahead with its sharp-elbowed brand of movement politics, but, Hasson said, “Pelosi’s strategic decisions will be mindful of future Democratic elections, her donor base and the broad progressive agenda.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.