The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi’s Allies Trade Accusations of Racism and Ignorance

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addresses the Center for American Progress (CAP) 2019 Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C., May 22, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch podcast, my co-host Greg Corombos observed that the leaders of the Democratic party will never back away from identity politics and the race card until they find themselves getting bitten by it as well — and we may be reaching this point.

We’ve come a long way from that happy Rolling Stone cover featuring House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, as well as Representative Jahana Hayes. Now Ocasio-Cortez is contending that Pelosi is giving her grief because of the color of her skin:

When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post. “But the persistent singling out . . . it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful… the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.

The accusation infuriated Pelosi’s allies, such as Representative Wm. Lacy Clay, an African-American Democrat from Missouri.

“What a weak argument, because you can’t get your way and because you’re getting pushback you resort to using the race card? Unbelievable. That’s unbelievable to me,” Clay said. “I could care less. I could really care less. I agree with the Speaker. Four people, four votes out of 240 people, who cares.”

The Missouri Democrat also described Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti and the progressive group Justice Democrats as “juvenile” and “ignorant.”

The Justice Democrats have endorsed a progressive primary challenger against Clay and other centrist Democrats. Chakrabarti last week sent out a tweet comparing centrist Democrats to “new Southern Democrats” that “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.”

“It shows you how ignorant and little history [Chakrabarti] knows, how ignorant he is to American history. How dare he,” Clay said.

A long, long time ago, CNN had me appear opposite liberal blogger John Aravosis regularly — a nice guy with what appeared, at least to me, as irrefutable credentials as a progressive in good standing. Back in June, during the whole “concentration camps” comment controversy, Aravosis’s patience appeared to run out:

They’re not concentration camps. And I’m sorry, I’m tired of being forced to defend the same three freshmen members of Congress because they repeatedly say dumb things and never seem to learn from the experience. She just handed the GOP a gold mine for its PR strategy. Congrats.

A month earlier, he had pleaded, “It’s time for the most outspoken members of the freshman Democratic class in Congress to just stop. Seriously, you didn’t think wading in on the Holocaust, calling it calming,’ and then getting the history wrong was going to be problematic?” On Twitter, the reaction to Aravosis’s criticisms was about what you would expect. But if he’s saying it, there are probably quite a few liberal Democrats with long memories who are also thinking it but reluctant to say so publicly.

Corey Richardson offered an assessment he knew would be controversial but felt needed to be said, that Ocasio-Cortez was “the perfect encapsulation of the Millennial ethos in the idea that showing up with an opinion should be rewarded and that somehow, people with experience are an impediment to their entitlement.”

Both houses of Congress have been institutions where seniority is valued and perhaps the most important element of leadership is your ability to develop relationships with your fellow members. This may or may not be a matter of being the most liked person in the room, but it means that a good member of Congress knows his peers, what they stand for, what sorts of ideas and proposals their state or district would support and which ones it wouldn’t, regularly demonstrates clarity in communication to colleagues (if not the public), and reliability. They know when to push the issue, when to twist the arms, when to wait, and when to back off and agree to disagree. Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy may not be universally liked among their peers, but they’re just about universally respected. And they’ve all been there a long time. They’ve paid their dues. They’ve stood alongside their colleagues in both good times and bad.

Some people might look at this and sneer that it’s “the insider Washington game.” Perhaps, or perhaps that’s just how you get things done when you’re part of large institution with lots of people with differing experiences and viewpoints. There’s a reason that just about every book and advice column advocates networking and getting to know a broader range of people. Getting other people to do what you want — to vote for your amendment or bill, to hold a hearing on a topic you find important, to allocate money to one of your priorities — is hard. They are more likely to agree if you’ve built a trusted relationship with them.

A lot of people who are used to getting their way in other environments come to Washington and are stunned when their old methods don’t work. In his first big test of Congressional negotiations, Steve Bannon met with the leaders of the House Freedom Caucus and declared, “Guys, look. This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” Except, they did have a choice, and exercised that choice on the first version of the legislation. Perhaps at, Bannon got used to negotiating with people he could fire.

Ocasio-Cortez may be used to people backing down when she accuses them of racism. Or she may believe that her ability to garner massive amounts of media coverage and numerous social media followers give her leverage over other Democratic House members. But the average Democratic House member doesn’t worry much about what Ocasio-Cortez’s 175,000 Twitter followers think; that average Democratic House member is much more worried about what his roughly 747,000 constituents think.

Thinking of Ocasio-Cortez’s lament about the workload discussed yesterday, these populist outsiders pride themselves on being so untainted by experience in the process of governing that they have no idea what the office they’re running for actually involves. They jump onto social media and publicly trash colleagues who disagree with them like they’re dealing with bad service in a restaurant chain.

A 2016 Peggy Noonan column discussed the phenomenon of those who think they understand how the world works but actually do not:

This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism. They have received most of what they know about political history through screens. They are college graduates, they’re in their 20s or 30s, they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is superficial.

They grew up in the Internet age and have filled their brain-space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect.”

 Yesterday at the White House social-media summit, a correspondent for Playboy (!) and Sebastian Gorka got into a predictable “I’m tougher than you” shouting match and scuffle. Once again — people come to Washington with one way of getting what they want from someone else, and they’re surprised when it doesn’t work. Boasting of your toughness and threatening to beat someone up might work in a dark alley or a bar in a bad neighborhood. Maybe it even works in some corporate boardrooms. It doesn’t work in the courtroom, in a legislature, in a debate or in a public advocacy campaign.

Ocasio-Cortez would be a lot more dangerous to her foes if she had bothered to read any of Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson, and how he gradually and methodically accumulated power in his Senate career. (LBJ proved remarkably adaptable at winning friends and influencing people, particularly older colleagues.) Perhaps that’s part of the cost of seeing yourself as a revolutionary. You’re so convinced that you represent the New Era and are so disdainful of the old ways that you refuse to learn anything from history.

ADDENDUM: It’s here! The pop-culture podcast with Mickey White, with a lot of talk about the third season of Stranger Things. This episode is broken into two parts. I’d like to say that was deliberate, but we lost the connection after about ten minutes and didn’t want to restart our conversation from the beginning.

I finished the season last night. In today’s world, when you go online to see what other people thought, you’re pretty likely to encounter an assessment that involves running every bit of the content through the Social-Justice Warrior Woke Mass Spectrometer for any molecules that are “problematic.” The irritable, drinking-too-heavily, explosive-temper town sheriff Jim Hopper is problematic? Sure. But that seems besides the point compared to the giant monsters that keep eating people in this town. Hopper is demonstrating “toxic masculinity”? How exactly do we think a law-enforcement officer who’s never quite figured out how to cope with the death of his daughter, the end of his marriage, the pressures of suddenly becoming the father of a teen girl with her own emotional issues, and his fear of expressing his feelings for Joyce would behave? How many emotions beyond anger do we think a small-town Midwestern sheriff in 1985 would be comfortable expressing in those circumstances? What, did we expect him to start discussing his feelings on a therapist’s couch?

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