Understanding the AOC vs. Pelosi feud: It's not a "catfight" but a long-term power struggle

Democratic infighting has exploded on social media, and created an opening for Trump. But it's not about two women

Published July 15, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/MediaPunch)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/MediaPunch)

Conditions in our so-called republic are terrible, but never so bad that the political and social crucible of the Trump era can’t make them worse. That seems to be the lesson of another catastrophic week in America, when tensions between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party boiled over into overt hostility on the same day that Vice President Mike Pence led a supposedly reassuring tour of the appalling detention facilities for migrants and refugees near the U.S.-Mexico border — and just before a planned series of ICE raids aimed at apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants living in American cities.

Pence’s disastrous PR tour of the Border Patrol's concentration camps along the border certainly ought to have been the weekend’s dominant story. But it’s hard to watch, hard to read about and hard to think about, especially when we have a “catfight” between two powerful women, still an exotic spectacle in any realm of public life outside Hollywood.

“Concentration camps” is an entirely accurate description, by the way, but call them whatever you like: Freedom dispensaries, indoor picnic areas, beach volleyball camps without beaches (or volleyballs). They are just one more ingredient in our national shame, confusion and collective trauma, and perhaps that’s the really shocking part. The gradual revelation that our government is holding unknown numbers of human beings in shocking and inhumane conditions — living in stench and filth, sleeping on concrete floors, denied basic standards of health or hygiene — becomes just another outrage on a seemingly endless list, and has left most Americans numb.

But all that came before the president of the United States injected himself into the dispute between the House Democratic leadership and the four progressive women known as “the Squad,” hijacking the news cycle with a series of vicious, virulent and overtly racist tweets. I know! How unusual! (I'm not going to link to them or republish them.) In the manner of bigots, xenophobes and nativists throughout our history, the grandson of immigrants suggested these four women of color should “go back” to their home countries. 

Is it falling into Trump’s trap to insist on the tiresome regime of facts, since we understand perfectly well that he and his supporters don’t care about them at all, and if anything relish the outrageousness of his lies? Possibly so. Still, if we’re counting, only one of the four members of the Squad — Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — was born outside the United States. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is the child of immigrants, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s parents are from Puerto Rico, which is … OK, never mind. You know what I’m going to say about that, even if the president hasn't gotten the message. It is quite likely that the American-born ancestry of Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who is black, precedes Donald Trump’s (or mine, or that of most white Americans) by many generations.

But Trump’s intervention was in fact a clarifying moment, since it put to the lie any suggestion that the Democratic Party’s internal battle was unrelated to the racism and sadism of his administration’s immigration policy — if to call it “policy” at all is not an insult to language, meaning and the obtuse traditions of self-respecting bureaucrats everywhere. Trump did what Trump does: He sensed a weakness in the opposition and attacked it gleefully, with the predatory instinct of an obese, bored house cat who won’t bother to eat mice but enjoys watching them squirm and suffer.  

Pelosi and many other prominent Democrats, of course, rushed to defend the members of the Squad and decry the president’s attacks. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity, but given everything that had happened over the previous few days, it couldn’t help but feel forced.

In any case the damage was done, and you could hear the guffawing and high-fiving inside the White House resound across the land. It was an epic Trumpian troll, which as usual boiled down to the idea that everybody but him is a total hypocrite, and at least he doesn’t claim to be something he’s not. You could pretty much rephrase his tweetstorm as: @SpeakerPelosi, I no rite! Those girls are SO annoying! Wanna deport em back to Whereveristan? ROTFLMAO

Which isn’t much worse, in all honesty, or even much different than some of the idiocy spouted by pro-Pelosi or pro-Squad internet warriors over the preceding few days, after first Pelosi and then Ocasio-Cortez publicly aired their grievances with each other in major newspapers. Why the speaker chose to make repeated and specific criticisms of the Squad during a sit-down interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, a noted specialist in the kind of dishy, backstabbing, pseudo-psychological reporting that can rightfully be described with an adjective rhyming with “itchy,” only Pelosi and her father confessor know. I certainly hope she now perceives that as an error in judgment.

Ocasio-Cortez responded in an interview with the Washington Post, suggesting that Pelosi had been “outright disrespectful” in “the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” There was considerable pushback from many members of the highly diverse Democratic caucus, and Ocasio-Cortez retreated somewhat, repeatedly denying that she was accusing Pelosi of racism. It was a rare media misstep from a young congresswoman who has been remarkably composed and sure-footed. If the two principals in the dispute largely stayed silent after that, their supporters and surrogates definitely did not.

I see no point in researching or repeating some of the claims and counter-claims made across Twitter and other platforms — but a great deal of it was distressingly Trumpy, well before the president leapt in. One running theme was the question of who was helping Trump more, or perhaps even was covertly on his side: Pelosi and the House leadership, or the Justice Democrats, the leftist advocacy group associated with Ocasio-Cortez, the other Squad members and various other insurgent officials and candidates? 

Pelosi was accused of being spineless, corrupt and cowardly, and of taking a much harder line with a small cadre of left-wing dissenters than she has ever done with the conservative Blue Dogs and “Problem Solvers” who openly tried to defeat her before the new Congress was seated. (At least some of that is plausible, but let’s move on.) Ocasio-Cortez and her Squad colleagues were accused of being ideological zealots who’d rather lose the majority than seek pragmatic compromise, Russian sleeper agents, BernieBros disguised as women and, perhaps ugliest of all, puppets deployed by “elitist white liberals.”

That came in a startlingly one-sided article by Scott Wong of The Hill that aired out various conspiracy theories about the Justice Democrats, if only in Trumpian “people are saying” form, and depicted Ocasio-Cortez and her allies as waging a campaign of destruction against the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. William Lacy Clay of Missouri, a 10-term incumbent who was unsuccessfully primaried by Justice Democrats in 2018 and will likely face another challenge next year, accused the group of “targeting lawmakers of color” and compared them to the “Russian trolls of 2016.” 

“CBC members and some top Democratic aides have questioned who is pulling the strings at Justice Democrats,” writes Wong darkly, while quoting no named source. That leads us to this profile in courage, let alone journalistic integrity:

A senior House Democratic aide called it “ironic and funny” that Ocasio-Cortez is accusing Pelosi of attacking women of color, when Justice Democrats is targeting minority lawmakers.  

“She’s only a woman of color when it’s convenient. None of the things she’s fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she’s a puppet,” the top Democratic aide told The Hill in a phone call. 

Capitol Hill gossip suggests that this unnamed source — who later texted Wong a picture of “a Goomba puppet from the Super Mario Bros. video game” — may have a vested interest in driving a wedge into the Democrats’ left flank. You will note that Wong does not say that this source is a person of color, or is affiliated with the CBC. But I don’t know who it was, and that doesn’t much matter.

One particular target of establishment Democrats’ ire is Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, a co-founder of Justice Democrats who clearly has big dreams of reorienting the entire party — and, perhaps not coincidentally, was just the subject of a lengthy Washington Post profile. A former tech-industry zillionaire who worked on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, Chakrabarti is perceived by some observers as the Rasputin behind the Squad’s agenda, which sounds like a grossly sexist assumption in general, and outright ludicrous when applied to these four women. But that’s where we are.

Chakrabarti has without question made a number of intemperate statements about non-Squad House Democrats, especially in the wake of the vote to approve the Senate’s emergency border bill in late June, which many progressives inside and outside Congress saw as an unacceptable betrayal. Pelosi’s instruction to the caucus in a closed-door meeting last week to stop tweeting about each other was largely, although not entirely, directed at him. 

That did nothing to silence the Justice Democrats’ online enemies, however. On Friday the exchange of missiles got worse than ever after a Twitter account that literally describes itself as speaking for the “Democratic Caucus of the United States Congress” dredged up a two-week-old tweet from Chakrabarti referring to Rep. Sharice Davids, a moderate Kansas freshman (but not, as far as I can tell, a plausible target for a primary challenge).

That sure sounds like the Democratic House leadership specifically throwing shade on the chief of staff of the caucus’ most visible progressive member, right? Don’t be silly, another anonymous “senior Democratic aide” — or possibly the same one — told Vox. Only a hopeless rube, apparently, would understand @HouseDemocrats as actually speaking for, say, the House Democrats! That account is the domain of caucus chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the source said, who “can do whatever he wants. … This is the caucus’s Twitter account, this isn’t the voice of House Democrats generally, come on.”

Right. Come on! I get it now. No, actually I don’t. OK, I get part of it better than I did before, and I would like to propose a deeply cynical alternate theory of the case: This bitter but apparently petty internecine dispute, which offered Donald Trump such a magnificent opportunity to come in and dunk on everybody (at least as his fans would see it) doesn’t have as much to do with differences on policy or ideology as you might think. To some significant degree, it's an old-fashioned New York City turf war.

Here’s how that works. Although the old-time New York Democratic “machines,” managed almost entirely by “white ethnic” men, have been disassembled, their remnants live on in more diverse guises. Last year Ocasio-Cortez defeated one of the major power brokers within that system, 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, who also led the Democratic Party in Queens. (For whatever this is worth, I live in that district.) That was a big shock to the party on a national scale, since Crowley was widely seen as a plausible successor to Pelosi. But it also shook the certainty of New York Democrats about the pyramid of power and patronage in which they’ve spent their political lives.

Crowley’s friends, allies and peers in that New York pyramid included the aforementioned Hakeem Jeffries, who represents a Brooklyn district and is both chair of the Democratic caucus and a prominent member of the CBC. (And who may indeed have succeeded Crowley as speaker-in-waiting.) There is visibly no love lost between Jeffries and Ocasio-Cortez, as the @HouseDemocrats account makes clear, although Justice Democrats have denied reports they were seeking a primary challenger in his district. 

Another leading CBC member and longtime Crowley ally — who was among the principal sources and, I would speculate, driving forces behind the Hill’s hit-piece on the Justice Democrats — is Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens, whose district adjoins Ocasio-Cortez’s. Meeks was recently "elected" to replace Crowley as Queens Democratic leader, in a rubber-stamp election held at a private meeting with roughly the same degree of transparency and democracy that attended local party elections in the Soviet Union. There were no other candidates.

Meeks represents the antithesis of Ocasio-Cortez in any number of ways, and the two faced off indirectly in a still-undecided primary election for Queens district attorney. (Sure, that's just one borough of New York City — with a population larger than that of 15 states.) That race concluded with establishment candidate Melinda Katz leading Justice Democrat-endorsed progressive Tiffany Cabán by 16 votes, pending the results of a recount and likely court challenges by whoever loses.

Meeks is, shall we say, a piece of work, even by New York standards. As an extended (and excellent) profile published recently in City & State New York puts it, his avowed agenda “is about letting corporations and Wall Street thrive, lifting up New Yorkers with their prosperity.” Meeks lobbied hard for the proposed Amazon facility in Queens; Ocasio-Cortez opposed it. “Clearly, I’m not a socialist. I’m a capitalist,” Meeks told reporter Jeff Coltin. 

Meeks’ career in Congress “has featured the endless mingling of money and power,” Coltin writes. His list of campaign donors has included Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, BlackRock, PricewaterhouseCoopers and various other financial service firms, some of whom also donated to a PAC he controls. Meeks has “reportedly been the subject of at least four federal or congressional investigations,” and has appeared three times on the annual list of the “most corrupt members of Congress” formerly published by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

One could keep going on Meeks for quite a while — but there’s another powerful New York Democrat whose district borders Ocasio-Cortez’s, and whose name has not appeared in any recent coverage of this dispute. That is noteworthy in itself, since Rep. Eliot Engel, who has represented the northern Bronx and an adjacent portion of suburban Westchester County for 30 years, is one of two principal targets for Justice Democrats in the 2020 cycle. (The other being Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, probably the most conservative Democrat in the House.)

Engel is not affiliated with the CBC (he is Jewish) nor is he nominally a member of the House leadership team. But he chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee, an extremely important post, and has a well-deserved reputation as a pro-Israel, pro-military hawk who supported the Iraq war, Wall Street deregulation and criminal justice policies that led to mass incarceration. Virtually all of his campaign funds come from big-ticket donors. If you want to look for the grudge factor, that’s here too: Engel was among the leading critics of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial remarks about Israel, and accused her of making a “vile, anti-Semitic slur.”

Engel’s district has a lot more working-class black and brown people, and a lot fewer single-issue Jewish voters, than when he was first elected. A longtime Democratic state senator in his district was recently primaried out by a progressive challenger. Justice Democrats are backing Jamaal Bowman, an African-American middle school principal who supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, in what will clearly be a Democratic primary of national importance next spring.

Is all this bitter sniping and outrageous name-calling rooted in an attempt to save one “mainstream” Democrat’s seat? I’m not saying that, exactly. Pelosi, Jeffries and Meeks probably don’t personally care what happens to Eliot Engel, beyond some degree of institutional or tribal loyalty. If they conclude he can’t be saved, they may decide they barely remember who he is.

Their feud with AOC, the Squad and the Justice Democrats is about an existential threat, not about one longtime colleague or one seat. If New York’s districts start to fall to left-wing insurgents, one by one, the nation will notice and the pattern will spread. If the pattern spreads, what is endangered is not just the power of certain individuals, but the entire theory of power that has driven the Democratic Party for generations. Those are literally the stakes.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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