AOC v. Pelosi: Round 12?
A girl fight is hard to resist. And though this one is more pantsuits than bikinis, political observers are drooling at the prospect of another round of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) versus House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Though this “feud” has been a thing only for a couple of years — the duration of AOC’s political career thus far — it has all the makings of a blockbuster story that leads to great soundbites and, most critically, lots of clicks online.
The latest installment centers on comments that AOC made on the podcast Intercepted with Jeremy Scahill, wherein the young congresswoman offered: “We need new leadership in the Democratic Party.” She added, “Opportunities to lead are so few and far between,” because there is a “lack of real grooming of a next generation of leadership.”
True to form, about five seconds after some recent college grad working at The Intercept hits “upload” on the podcast, Beltway media combusted. But the dirty little secret behind this story, and so many others like it, is that it really isn’t a story at all.
It isn’t a novel idea that Democrats need new leadership, or that one of the most vocal progressive representatives shares that belief. As AOC wrote on Twitter, “Yep, journalists have asked me (and others!) this same question for two years and I’ve answered the same way almost every time but for some reason today it’s “news.” (It’s not news) I am however guilty of the cardinal political sin of clearly answering a journalists’ question.”
Two things are important here. First, she rightly highlights how infrequently politicians directly answer journalists’ questions. I know the business of politics is messy and that some dodging is just part of the game. But the frequency at which pols spin, obfuscate and outright ignore media questions has done real damage to Americans’ ability to get a real handle on where those tax dollars they send to Washington are going.
Second, AOC isn’t alone in feeling this way about the Democratic leadership. Far from it. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi in 2016 and, after the Democrats won the House in 2018, said, “I think it’s important that we listen to those new members. They got elected in red districts, conservative districts. They did a heck of a job over the last year. I think their opinions should matter.”
All House members’ opinions should matter, and especially so when they’ve just won a conservative or purple district. In 2018, more than 20 congressional candidates pledged not to support Pelosi for the speakership should they win, with nearly 10 of them winning their races and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) very seriously weighed a challenge. Pelosi was able to hold on to her position by pledging to serve only four more years in the role, but criticism persisted.
After the Democrats’ disappointing down-ballot showing in November, wherein moderate Democrats lost several seats, a group of centrist representatives came together to discuss throwing their support behind a challenger to Pelosi. Not only did Democrats lose more than 10 seats, but House members such as Cheri Bustos of Illinois, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of protecting vulnerable members and flipping red seats blue, barely won her own race.
These centrists were eyeing New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the head of the Democratic House Caucus. One Democratic lawmaker said, “He’s the only one prepared and positioned to be speaker. He bridges moderates and progressives better than anyone. And most importantly, he’s not Nancy Pelosi.”
As expected, Jeffries shot the idea down. And though Pelosi was able to retain the speakership, it’s clear that the media are giving this a narrow reading. This is an area where there is common ground between the progressive and moderate representatives.
Questions of leadership are deeply complex. They are especially so when there are stark ideological divides within a party and leaders in place who have delivered big wins throughout their careers and also have had a long tenure in those roles.
It follows that the most important, and newsworthy, part of what AOC said is that there has been a real lack of grooming for the next generation of leadership. It’s hard to disagree with her.
Besides Jeffries, few names spring to mind when you think about potential successors for Pelosi — or House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), for that matter. They are widely expected to all step down from their roles at the same time, which makes 2022 an even more important election than usual.
And while there are significant players in the caucus who could fill leadership positions — such as Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) or Karen Bass (D-Calif.) — questions remain around the formal leadership training process and how Democrats can satisfy the needs of a younger caucus that is split between moderate and progressive representatives.
Additionally, there has been growing discussion about committee chair term limits to try to get more representatives in senior leadership. It’s an across-the-board problem.
I’ve always liked the idea of a shadow leadership team, where newcomer stars from across the ideological spectrum such as Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), for example, could get their feet wet. Pelosi and her team are surely considering their options and a succession plan for when the time comes.
They are also surely not panicking about what AOC said on a podcast. That’s a fantasy the media just won’t let go.
Jessica Tarlov is head of research at Bustle Digital Group and a Fox News contributor. She earned her Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in political science. Follow her on Twitter @JessicaTarlov.