It’s impossible to understand the Democratic rebellion against Nancy Pelosi without understanding the way power works in the House of Representatives. To understand the self-serving men behind this rebellion, heed the words of the late screenwriter William Goldman: Follow the money.
There is discontent with Pelosi’s ideology on the left, and that’s understandable. But ideology is not driving this campaign, and this is no populist rebellion. In fact, its leaders have no discernible ideology at all.
That’s how corporate money rolls in the Democratic Party. It lays low, hides its true colors and pretends it only wants to “get things done.”
The anti-Pelosi insurgency is not a movement. It’s a cabal, orchestrated by the appropriately hashtagged #FiveWhiteGuys, a group of self-self-interested players with big money behind them. These white males resemble nothing so much as the next-generation terminator played by Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” They’re cunning, aggressive, shape-shifting and so reflective that anyone who looks at them sees only a distorted image of themselves.
If you’re looking to change politics, they don’t reflect you.
Rebel without a cause
This ersatz rebellion’s most visible leader is Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a custom-crafted biography in a suit who appears to hold no core beliefs. That’s undoubtedly a plus for the political operatives who recruited and promoted him. An early profile has Moulton variously calling himself “a progressive Democrat,” a “pragmatic Democrat” and a “frustrated Democrat” — and that was just during his first primary.
Moulton was reportedly recruited to run for Congress by New Politics, a group that seeks to elect both Democratic and Republican veterans. It describes itself as “bipartisan,”a word will come up again in the story of the anti-Pelosi rebellion. New Politics’ other success story is Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who notably blamed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, rather than the ill-advised Iraq war, for the rise of ISIS.
Moulton, who reportedly backed that tragic misadventure, enjoyed the early support of two generals who helped lead it, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. (Unfortunately, both are now disgraced: McChrystal for disrespecting the civilian chain of command, and Petraeus for revealing secrets to an extramarital lover as he cheated on his wife, a crime that would have likely led to criminal indictment for a less well-connected official.)
As the Washington Post reports, Moulton “has aligned with Republicans on some policy bills, ranging from a ban on the gun accessories used in last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas to a recent legislation allowing veterans to use medical marijuana.”
Moulton had praise for Pelosi when he was asked about her last year, saying she had achieved an “awful lot.” He told Politico’s Michael Kruse that he thought much of the Republican criticism of her was “unfair,” but added, “the reality is that we’re losing.”
Well, Pelosi’s winning now. What’s his rationale for opposing Pelosi today? “If that many seats change hands,” Moulton said after the election, “that’s just all the more reason the American people are calling out for change.”
Heads, he wins. Tails, Pelosi loses.
The FIRE brigade
Moulton’s given to making hazy statements like: “Congress needs a new leader. Period.”
The only concrete thing about him appears to be the money he’s raised for like-minded candidates. “Thanks to a network of donors rooted in the financial centers of Boston and New York,” reports the Post, “Moulton’s Serve America PAC and related political committees raised a combined $8 million for the election cycle.”
Moulton has been well-rewarded for his ideological plasticity. During his short political career, Moulton has received a total of $1,723,870 from the investor class that comprises the so-called “FIRE” sector — financial, insurance and real estate. He has also received more than $160,000 from Pharma. (These figures come from Open Secrets.)
Moulton isn’t the only member of the five-man anti-Pelosi band, of course. The rhythm section is composed of Colorado’s Ed Perlmutter, Oregon’s Kurt Schrader and Bill Foster of Illinois. The three men have received $4,082,803, $987,050, and $2,747,969 respectively from the FIRE sector. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who mounted a longshot challenge to Pelosi in 2016, is the band’s other leader — the Keith Richards, if you will, to Moulton’s would-be Jagger.
Ryan isn’t running this time around. Instead, Ryan recently insisted that there are “plenty of really competent females that we can replace [Pelosi] with.”
For sheer tone-deafness in gender relations, that phrase belongs with Mitt Romney’s 2012 comment about the “binders full of women” he hoped to appoint as president. It may be worse, in fact, since it suggests females can’t be assumed to be competent. The remark will have an added sting for Democratic women who remember Ryan’s past positions on reproductive rights.
Why does Ryan say Pelosi has to go? “We need a brand change,” Ryan told Rolling Stone. For content-free criticism, that’s about as empty — and as cringeworthy — as it gets.
No labels, no point
The rhetorical style of these Democratic “rebels” — vague on the issues, big on clichés and platitudes, the rhetorical equivalent of cotton candy — comes with a pedigree. It is the hallmark of “centrism,” the billionaire-funded political faction that serves its financial backers by selling themselves as “non-ideological,” “technocratic” architects of “bipartisan” consensus who can “break the gridlock” and “solve problems.”
For this crowd, “solving problems” always winds up meaning the same thing: cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and an unwarranted obsession with the federal deficit that always — just accidentally, mind you! — winds up helping corporations and the billionaire class.
The “centrist” political style claims to be “above parties and partisanship” — which, in the end, is another way of saying it’s free of any principles except the interests of its paymasters. It often comes in the guise of patriotism, as when Seth Moulton says he places “country over party” — a comment that, implicitly, is a deep insult to those who believe one party’s proposals would serve the country better than the other’s.
The anti-Pelosi campaign is being supported by one of the mainstays of the corporate centrist world — the cynical political ploy known as No Labels, which I wrote about in 2012, and its creation, the Problem Solvers Caucus. If you called No Labels a guaranteed-employment plan for Republican and Democratic political hacks, you would not be wrong.
Besides, the Problem Solvers Caucus — which, predictably, promised to “break the gridlock” and get things done — hasn’t solved any problems. Given their agenda, that’s a good thing — but it’s hardly a mandate to lead.
It’s not about the speakership — it’s about blocking progressive change
The No Labels crowd is throwing its public influence (negligible) and its ability to muster campaign cash (considerable) behind the anti-Pelosi effort for a reason: They see this as an opportunity to weaken the Democrats’ newfound power in the House. That’s especially urgent for the big-money crowd at a time when nearly half of successful new candidates ran on Medicare for All and more than 100 House Democrats have joined the Expand Social Security Caucus.
The “centrist” campaign may help explain why Pelosi plans to impose a new rule making it harder to raise middle-class taxes. This rule would make it harder to achieve either Medicare for All or expanded Social Security, even though any new taxes would leave the working class much better off financially than it is today.
Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, has already indicated he could back Pelosi if more such changes were put in place. The caucus’ additional proposed changes, roughly outlined here, would effectively give Republicans veto power over progressive legislation.
It is noteworthy that there was no serious attempt to implement these rules when Republicans ran the House.
Even more than the speakership, this procedural power grab motivates the anti-Pelosi crowd and its backers. They might even withdraw their opposition to her if they could seize this power for themselves and their “centrist” allies in both parties.
No wonder these “rebels” are vague about their goals. Given the massive support for Medicare for All (more than 70 percent of the public, 85 percent of Democrats) and expanding Social Security, they know their agenda is extremely unpopular. If they truly believed in “country over party,” they would support programs that most of the country wants and needs.
How power works
Here’s how power really works in the House of Representatives. The speaker holds enormous power, but only serves at the pleasure of her caucus. The representatives in that caucus are not her employees; they are her constituents. Anyone who wants to become speaker has to win their support.
One very effective way to do that is by raising money, as Pelosi has prodigiously done. Another is by managing the House, and the caucus, effectively enough to rack up a list of accomplishments that will help those representatives win re-election.
Here’s something else worth knowing about Democratic power in the House: Its party organizations are still deeply hierarchical, and are built on deeply embedded relationships. If the Moulton/Ryan gang succeeds in unseating Pelosi, the speakership will not go to someone the left supports. Sure, it would be great to see Barbara Lee become speaker, but that simply isn’t going to happen. Besides, she’s not even running. (Lee is running for the House’s No. 5 position.)
The Five Guys (not to be confused with the burger chain of the same name) and their backers are almost certainly looking for one of two outcomes: Either Pelosi accedes to their demands, which will paralyze the Democratic agenda, or Pelosi is replaced with someone who will. But if Pelosi goes down, that replacement will probably not be Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, despite her public expressions of interest (as of this writing) and Moulton’s professed support for her.
The Five Guys may block Pelosi, but they will not choose her successor. Instead, in the chaos that would follow a Pelosi defeat, the speakership would probably go to the second-highest member of the Democratic hierarchy: Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
The left is distressed with Pelosi, and that’s understandable. Pelosi’s commitment to “pay as you go” funding is a political and procedural mistake of the first order. The new tax rule is, as MoveOn.org and others have said, “a staggeringly bad idea” — although that may have been forced on her by the Five Guys crowd. (Progressives should note, however, that this rule could be waived at any time to pass progressive programs.)
A Hoyer speakership would be a catastrophe for the left, for reasons Politico’s Bill Scher lays out here. Hoyer represents the worst of the corporate-backed, “centrist,” economically neoliberal party elite. His faction’s disastrous policies and muddled messaging led it into the political wilderness. With this election, the party has only begun to make up some of the ground lost under its rule.
Progressives should mobilize to defeat Hoyer and replace him, preferably with someone who can serve as an heir apparent. And if the left wants a more progressive House speaker, it needs to run candidates in more primaries. When House Democrats are more progressive, Pelosi or her successor will either change accordingly or be replaced.
Yes, Pelosi’s a big fundraiser. She reportedly raised $135.6 million for this election cycle. A cynic might say that this figure, when compared to Moulton’s $8 million, makes her about 17 times more likely to win this speakership fight.
Pelosi raises that money, from a variety of sources, because she plays to win in the current system. Nancy Pelosi can’t, and won’t, lead the fight to get money out of politics. But then, the Democratic left needs to stop waiting for politicians to fight their battles. That’s what movements are for.
This country needs a mass movement that will demand fundamental political change. But nobody needs the Five Guys’ corporate-backed chaos, or the reactionary regime it seeks to impose on the House of Representatives.
If some leftists don’t want Pelosi to win, that’s understandable. But they should hope with all their hearts that her opponents lose.