There is a reason why former House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), despite holding a dismal 29% approval rating among Democrats, continues to hold onto government authority. Her secret is the abuse of power politics, where legislation drafted for “we the people” is traded for dirty-dealing, smoke-filled backrooms, lobbyist money and loyalty granted to corrupt politicians, not the citizenry for which they represent.
It wasn’t just a coincidence that Rep. Pelosi — despite her controversial record of illiberal positions supporting the Afghanistan war, Syrian intervention, deregulation of Wall Street, her opposition to Medicare-For-All, free college and laughing in the face of federal minimum wage hikes — secured the support of so-called progressive groups committed to anti-corporate agendas. A signature offence comes from the firebrand single-payer supporter Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the expected co-chair of 2019’s House Progressive Caucus, who endorsed Pelosi in her bid for House Speaker just hours after their meeting regarding appointments to powerful legislative committees.
“No one can really doubt Pelosi’s progressive chops,” Jayapal told Politico in a recent interview earlier this week. “And I do think, for the next two years, as we lead into 2020, and are coming off this big wave, we need someone who is smart and strategic and has done this before. The [anti-Pelosi] drive is not going to take us in the [progressive] direction that we should go,” she continued. “It’s going to be the opposite of what the election really told us, which is a much more diverse, progressive, bold agenda.”
Just months ago in August, this united vision behind Pelosi’s leadership was starkly different.
When NBC once asked Democratic politicians if they would support a Pelosi bid for House Majority Speaker, a total of 58 party members, including Rep. Jayapal, refused to endorse her. These bipartisan voices also included rising Justice Democrat progressives such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-IL) and Ayanna Pressley (D-IL), as well as the pro-corporate “blue dogs” from Republican districts in Reps. Conor Lamb (D-PA), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Jared Golden (D-ME), Gil Cisneros (D-CA) and Max Rose (D-NY). At the time, Pelosi was outweighed by resistance votes. “There is widespread agreement,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KT) to Vox, “that we need a rejuvenation of leadership.”
When Pelosi came knocking and offering gifts of legislative power or corporate fundraising, the vast majority made the “bold” decision to support the bleeding heart neo-liberal. Jayapal announced her deal guaranteed more progressive members being seated on the committee for “Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Appropriations, Financial Services, and Intelligence”, granting the left-wing more legislative power in exchange for loyalty to the old-guard establishment.
“Specifically, we are pleased that Leader Pelosi shares our commitment to ensuring that CPC members are represented proportionally on the key exclusive committees,” said Jayapal and fellow caucus member Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) in a statement. “We coordinated very closely with them, and they actually told Pelosi that they won’t come out for her until [after] our meeting. So we are leveraging our power in different ways within the caucus but also with our allies on the outside.”
While such a political compromise undermines the narrative of a “forceful revolution within the Democratic party” which underlines the appeal behind these progressive movements, from the grassroots of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress organizations to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who founded Our Revolution, there is a silver-lining to this alliance of lawmakers. The question still remains whether they’ve used their leverage on empty promises which abandon their principles.
Pelosi, demanding loyalty among her party, is savvy in enabling progressives to potentially hold key seats on influential committees and subcommittees, which could hold their party leader accountable on policy grounds, in exchange for their vote. Assuming this is a legitimate trade with no crossed fingers behinds backs, Pelosi is allowing progressives to maintain a long-term placement at the tables of power which go beyond the standard preaching to the caucus. Except is this too good to be true? And are the progressives willing to pledge their vote without concrete reassurances?
In the very same article, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) published a list of bills he requested Pelosi to put up for a Congressional vote to help ensure his support. These weren’t “bipartisan” calls to increase funds for the already overblown military budget (currently set at a staggering $590B), but left-wing causes such as “a $15 minimum wage, Medicare-for-all and a ‘Green New Deal’,” (referring to investment in clean, renewable energy jobs).
This would be admirable leverage wielding if it wasn’t paired with backhanded backtracking, telling the publication he wouldn’t withhold his vote if she broke such promises. “Khanna didn’t go so far as saying he’d withhold his own vote for Pelosi to get a promise for votes on progressive bills,” wrote journalist Ella Nilsen. “After all, he added, they’re longtime friends.”
Activists, on the other hand, see the value in withholding their leverage gains more so than their own politicians. These deals follow recent protests in Pelosi’s office where proponents of climate change, joined by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, called for more support addressing the issue on a fundamental policy basis. Pelosi later tweeted her support for the protestors with her promise to “address the crisis” once in power. This is consistent with her past rhetoric, though actions speak louder than the words of politicians. It’ll be a long time before she secures their votes.
On Capitol Hill, all that initially stood in her way was Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) — the only progressive challenger to Pelosi’s speakership — who ultimately endorsed her once she secured a position to restore a defunct subcommittee on elections. Loyalty bought Fudge a position as reigning committee chairwoman. The chance for progressives to lead the fight, forcing Pelosi to move even further to their cause, was given up by the time Pelosi introduced her first compromise. Such weak negotiation would make even the ghostwriter for President Trump’s famous “Art Of The Deal” disappointed.
Fudge’s new committee will reportedly be focusing on “the issue of voting rights which has been a top priority of members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)”, according to her statement published by The Hill. “Leader Pelosi has granted me the opportunity to create the record necessary to satisfy the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, so that the protections of the Voting Rights Act will be reinstated and improved,” Fudge writes. “She has also assured me that the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic party, Black women, will have a seat at the decision-making table.”
Though is this far enough? Sure, Fudge’s statements were in the context of a newly legitimate narrative of a “small group of white, moderate men” who are sabotaging Pelosi from moving to the left. Consider the release of the blue dog Democrat letter from over 16 pro-corporate candidates refusing to endorse her from a right-wing perspective. 13 of those were white males in conservative-leaning states, according to govtrack.us, who would likely take up their own leadership bids to appease Republicans. There is a real danger there, but should progressives automatically concede to their de facto leader based on an elusive “seat at the table” pledge? Or could their political deal have gone beyond simple committee appointments?
As also noted by Ocasio-Cortez: “Right now, out of the field, I would say that [Pelosi] is the most progressive candidate,” she posted to her Instagram followers. “All of the rebellion for the Speakership are challenges to her right … My standard in this is: I’m going to support the most progressive candidate that’s leading the party, and right now, that is Nancy Pelosi, in terms of the running. I would like to see new, younger leadership, but I don’t want new leadership that’s more conservative.”
But would this be the case? Fudge, an African-American representative, once called for “acknowledging the fact that the Democratic Party is becoming more young, more black, and more brown and letting that be reflected in our leadership”, she slammed Pelosi as “a very wealthy person” who “raises a lot of money from a lot of other wealthy people.” It was this statement that, at the time, secured the votes of anti-Pelosi moderates, Reps. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Seth Moulton (D-MA), with Fudge telling The Washington Post she was “overwhelmed by the amount of support” she received from such characters. If conservatives vote for progressives, purely based on the optics of resisting Pelosi, how conservative are they really? Talk about a miscalculation from Fudge since Moulton continues to challenge Pelosi from her right. A key vote wasted.
In decades past, Pelosi was surprisingly among the leading voices in support of left-wing causes. As an early member of the 1990s Congressional Progressive Caucus, formed by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), she voted against the invasion of Iraq, championed marriage equality when it was an unpopular stance and secured the passing of the Affordable Care Act. These are peanuts compared to her recent support of candidates such as Clinton — who moderately disagreed with Pelosi on these same key issues — meanwhile her former caucus leader Sanders was still a viable candidate during the 2016 presidential election. She is no progressive hero, which will be needed down the line when it comes to Democratic success.
With President Trump occupying the White House and Mitch McConnell controlling the Senate, progressives shouldn’t just look to blind obstructionism amongst themselves. It’s unconscionable to delve so deep into puritan politics that one allows the very same opposition policies they were elected to prevent. At the same time, Pelosi’s leadership could also further the perception that Democrats are desperately scrapping together their identity in real-time, meanwhile Fudge burned a coalition she barely fostered.
Consider a leadership where the “bold” ideas of Medicare-For-All, which has bipartisan support among the average voters, are pushed to the side for political theatre investigations into sexual assaults, fake bipartisanship on deregulatory policy or, as her recent speech suggests, maintaining the status quo. Won’t voters see this as Pelosi’s nothingism in 2020?
“Let’s hear more for pre-existing medical conditions,” she rallied the crowd at this so-called victory party. “Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about restoring the Constitution and checks and balances to the Trump administration. It’s about stopping the GOP and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell’s assault on Medicare, Medicaid, affordable health care, and millions of Americans living with pre-existing medical conditions.”
No mention of admired progressive policies were made, no mention of new committees set to reform social and economic justice issues, just standard centrist opinions held universal within each faction. It’s a safe move which, ironically, is an unsafe vulnerability, showing the pre-established causes for which she rallies. Such is the case with the lesser of two evils, where the bold vision needed to secure a base voters need to retake the White House and Congress could be ignored. The Democrats should hope their captain has the potential to brave red waves before it’s too late.