The Overhyped Feud Between Nancy Pelosi and AOC

There’s not as much disagreement between the speaker and the left flank of her caucus as their spat suggests.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

“With all due respect, the press likes to make a story that is more about Democrats divided than the fact that Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about the children,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Maureen Dowd in a recent interview.

With all due respect, that’s not quite right. The newly reignited feud between the speaker and “the Squad,” as a quartet of young, female, liberal representatives are known, shows that Pelosi’s analysis is both true and misleading.

Start with where she goes wrong. The proximate cause for this round was a late-June vote on funding for border security, in which Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley voted against Democratic leadership. That dissent was significant, and the Squad members were, as usual, happy to expound publicly on the reasons for their vote. But some faction of a caucus breaking with leaders on a particular vote is hardly unusual, and the incident might have faded from view—if not for Pelosi taking a swipe at the Squad in her interview with Dowd.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Unsurprisingly, the Squad didn’t appreciate this. Pelosi, in turn, scolded them in a caucus meeting on Wednesday. “You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just okay,” she said. This is a bit rich coming from someone who just complained to The New York Times, though leadership does have its privileges. Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post that she understood Pelosi’s need to shelter moderates, but still took umbrage, saying, “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.”

There’s no reason to blame the media for simply reporting shots that the two sides are taking at each other. Insofar as there’s a “Democrats in disarray” narrative in place, it’s because the Democrats are shouting at one another from the rooftops.

Yet the rhetorical sparring does obscure a broader Democratic unity. The border-funding vote aside, there’s barely any daylight between Democrats on matters actually before the House. The Squad has broken with Pelosi on just two votes so far, according to ProPublica’s tracker. The gap between the party’s moderate and left wings is relatively small, too. Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, have parted ways on just 13 percent of votes; Omar and Representative Max Rose of New York, who’s more pragmatic than ideological, on 7 percent of votes.

These numbers can mislead. We’re only a few months into the Congress, and there are plenty of opportunities for bigger gulfs to appear; partisans agree on most things most of the time because most votes aren’t on hot-button issues. Nor does it make sense to pretend that everything’s copacetic. Rose and Omar tangled very publicly over remarks she made about Israel, some of which he considered anti-Semitic.

Even acknowledging these facts, there’s a world of difference between these dustups and the veritable civil war among Republicans when they controlled the House. The House Freedom Caucus, the conservative GOP coalition, made the lives of Republican Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan impossible and eventually hounded them into retirement. In the previous Congress, House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows voted against Ryan on a third of all votes.

Actually, the Squad and the House Freedom Caucus represent mirror images. Outside of the House, the members of the Freedom Caucus were marginal, representing policy views that were not especially popular except in their own districts. Inside the House, they had sufficient numbers to wreck the best-laid plans of Republican leadership. The Squad members, by contrast, have a large and avid following in progressive circles nationwide. Whereas inside the House, “they’re four people and that’s how many votes they got,” as Pelosi put it.

The Squad understands this dynamic. In a recent New Yorker interview, David Remnick asked Ocasio-Cortez about her relationship with the speaker. She replied:

I think sometimes people think that we have this, like, we have a relationship.

Are you saying you don’t?

Not particularly, not one that’s, I think, distinguished from anyone else.

In other words, Ocasio-Cortez recognizes herself as one of 235 House Democrats. And in her unofficial role as spokeswoman for the Squad, she has tended to interpret Pelosi’s remarks as political strategy rather than political animus.

“I think leadership, their primary goal right now is making sure that everyone who won a swing seat comes back,” Ocasio-Cortez told Remnick. “So I think that that’s where a lot of their time—rightfully, I think, justifiably—is invested, in those relationships.”

This is the important context whenever there’s a new round of sniping between the Squad and the speaker. Though they have differences of opinion, they are all on the same strategic page—and even those differences of opinion aren’t as big as they can sometimes seem.