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Nancy Pelosi Has Power—She Just Doesn’t Want to Use It

The Speaker's feud with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reveals a great deal about her approach to leadership.

Win McNamee/Getty

On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi reminded her caucus who the real enemy is, telling them that they needed to present a united front in the fight against Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. “Without that unity, we are playing completely into the hands of the other people,” Pelosi said, according to the Associated Press. “We’re a family and we have our moments,” Pelosi continued. “So, again, 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 OK.”

It’s advice that Pelosi may have needed more than any of her colleagues. A Maureen Dowd New York Times column on Sunday quoted the speaker sniping at a quartet of progressive first-term congresswomen. “These people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said, in between boasting about hanging out with Bono and discussing her Napa vineyard. “But they didn’t have any following.” The representatives Pelosi was referring to—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—had all recently voted against a version of a border funding bill that provided billions of dollars to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but did so without any of the oversight most House Democrats had originally sought.

Ocasio-Cortez punched back, tweeting that what she was really guilty of was doing politics.

The rift between Pelosi and her left-flank says much about the generational divide in the Democratic Party. But more than anything, it speaks to a profound philosophical difference. Pelosi and Democratic leadership believe in accumulating power, but rarely wielding it. They believe that taking action—whether it be on issues like health care, or holding a criminal president accountable—could backfire. Any use of power, the theory goes, any spending of political capital, risks being met with a profound reaction from the GOP, from swing voters, and from conservative Democrats that will ultimately hurt the party’s ability to win elections, and so, retain power. Ocasio-Cortez and others, meanwhile, are arguing not just for the party to use the tools at their disposal, but that using their constitutionally mandated power to hold people and institutions accountable will lead to electoral gains rather than losses.

Pelosi’s approach to impeachment is probably the clearest example of this schism. Fearing that opening impeachment proceedings will distract from—and undermine—the 2020 campaign, she has put the brakes on many measures to hold Trump and his administration accountable. Instead, she has made opaque and confusing public statements, claiming that Trump is “just not worth it” and that he “self-impeaches” every day. She has similarly declined to go after other Trump officials. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, most recently, has been rightfully attacked for his shameful handling of a plea deal with billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein while serving as U.S. attorney for Florida’s southern district. Pelosi could launch impeachment proceedings against Acosta. Instead she launched a petition—attached to a fundraising ask.

While Pelosi has a well-earned reputation for whipping votes and retaining loyalty, thanks in large part to her ability to dole out the huge sums she rakes in from donors, she has also consistently wielded power in this cautious manner.

As Ryan Grim argued last week in The Washington Post, there are historical reasons for this approach. “Democratic leaders like Pelosi, Joe Biden, Steny Hoyer and Chuck Schumer were shaped by their traumatic political coming-of-age during the breakup of the New Deal coalition and the rise of Ronald Reagan—and the backlash that swept Democrats so thoroughly from power nearly 40 years ago,” Grim wrote. “They’ve spent the rest of their lives flinching at the sight of voters. When these leaders plead for their party to stay in the middle, they’re crouching into the defensive posture they’ve been used to since November 1980, afraid that if they come across as harebrained liberals, voters will turn them out again.” These Democrats are “haunted by the Reagan era” and equate moving left with devastating losses.

Over the same period, the Republican Party has embraced a completely opposite approach to politics. While Democrats have long seen power as something to accrue and wield responsibly, they typically do little more than hoard it. The GOP, meanwhile, seeks power at all costs and wields it with abandon. No figure in contemporary politics sums up this approach better than Mitch McConnell, who has gone to extraordinary lengths, particularly when it comes to the federal judiciary, to use his power to reshape the government. The kinds of bold gambits on which McConnell has embarked—blocking Merrick Garland from the Supreme Court is a particularly galling example—are based on the idea that not only should power be used to the fullest extent possible, but that Republicans will more likely be punished for not acting than they will for taking aggressive action.

And in response, more often than not, Democrats are reactive, almost apologizing for what power they have. Leaders like Pelosi contort themselves to appear moderate and eager for compromise. They are terrified about any approach that looks like open, unabashed advocacy for the rights of undocumented immigrants, or restoring some degree of economic equity by (gasp) raising taxes on those who can most afford to pay them. They fear being called tax-and-spend socialists, more than they desire progressive results. And so they retreat, again and again, fearing that doing much of anything could cost them campaign contributions, and, ultimately, cost them seats. Looking over the barren landscape of recent American politics, it’s easy to see that this is not a particularly rewarding strategy.

McConnell’s nihilist approach often involves wielding power not for the sake of a specific policy outcome, but to accrue yet more political power. Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez are arguing that their party has the means to profoundly alter people’s lives: They can take action on the border, where ICE and CBP agents are torturing migrants; they can bring to justice members of the Trump administration, including the president himself, for flouting the law and favoring the wealthy; they can fight for economic policies that don’t benefit party donors, but instead make it easier for all people to afford housing and health care. In other words, they can do something. The other option, too much of the time, is doing nothing.