When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seized the speaker’s gavel in January, it was a moment of triumph. She overcame not only millions of dollars of Republican attack ads last fall but also insurgent intraparty challenges from her left and right flanks. Fast forward six months, two of those three threats have faded for the time being, while the third looms to her left and is getting louder by the day.
After months of simmering skirmishes, the feud between Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., burst open this week when the freshman accused the speaker of “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” It wasn’t the only race-based barb thrown Pelosi’s way from the AOC orbit. Her chief of staff compared centrists to “1940s Southern Democrats” – the second time in a month that the Democrats were squabbling about segregationists.
The first-year congressional quartet of Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., – dubbed “the Squad” – represent congressional districts that went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by an average of 61 percentage points in 2016. In other words, the only competition those four will ever face for re-election would come in a primary, never a general election. They have zero incentive to ever moderate, compromise or capitulate. With an average age of just 38, these four could be Democratic household names for decades to come.
The 79-year-old Pelosi’s political future is far more tenuous. Yes, she defied the odds and the critics in her path back to power last year. The Democrats who challenged her from the right, Representatives Tim Ryan, D-Ohio and Seth Moulton, D-Mass, are pursuing hopeless presidential bids, lighting their political futures on fire in the process. Right now, not even the most bullish GOP prognosticators are projecting a Republican flip of the House in 2020.
Pelosi has walked a fine line of placating the Squad while protecting the more moderate members of her caucus that hold the keys to her power. She raised the ire of the left by siding with the center on the recent border security bill. She poured gas on the fire by dismissing the Squad as nothing more than caricatures of social media in a highly-trafficked Maureen Dowd column. The speaker then threw the left a bone with her hyperbolic accusation about Trump wanting to make America white again.
Amid all this noise, two other warning signs flashed on Pelosi’s radar this week. First, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed President Trump’s approval rating ticking upward to a new highwater mark. Unlike 2018, the congressional elections in 2020 are at the mercy of top of the ticket winds. If Trump and the Republicans are keeping the race close to his 2016 margin, that’s problematic for the Democratic freshmen who barely squeaked by in a favorable political climate and with the winds at their back.
The second potential problem for Pelosi is the entrance of Tom Steyer, a fellow limousine liberal who calls San Francisco home, into the presidential race. The path to the nomination for the dull as paint Steyer is steep and unlikely, but his pledge to spend $100 million dollars will shake things up. If past is prologue, Steyer will focus on his pet issues of impeachment and climate change – two contentious topics that started the Pelosi/AOC rift.
So far, the Speaker has managed to bottle up the impeachment cries – defying the will of nearly 80 members of her caucus. Similarly, Pelosi has dismissed AOC’s Green New Deal legislation as a “green dream” – perhaps retribution for the protests AOC organized in Pelosi’s office last November.
Pelosi knows the double whammy of impeachment and eco-extremism could spell electoral doom in the parts of the country she needs her party to win to remain speaker.
What happens on the presidential stage will trickle down and drive the debate in Congress. If Steyer is serious about dedicating $100 million dollars toward elevating these two issues nationally, it makes Pelosi’s job that much harder. Even if he doesn’t, expect another one of the two dozen presidential wannabes to pick up the same baton to curry favor with the hard left.
How this feud ends, no one knows. But one thing is clear, neither side shows any signs of backing down.