Michael Hirsh

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Michael Hirsh

Who Will Speak for the Democrats?

Nancy Pelosi be­lieves she has one more great task left in her long ca­reer—sav­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy. If, as ex­pected, the Democrats take con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives on Novem­ber 6, Pelosi may be­come the first Speaker to re­gain the po­si­tion in more than six decades (the leg­endary Sam Ray­burn did it in 1955). And at what a mo­ment: Pelosi and the House Democrats be­lieve—and a huge num­ber of vot­ers agree—that they are all that stands be­tween the fu­ture of the repub­lic and the broad-based as­sault on demo­cratic val­ues led by Don­ald Trump, one of the few peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton who’s de­mo­nized even more than Pelosi is.

De­spite her prom­ises to em­brace a pos­i­tive agenda from day one of the new Congress, Pelosi (who has said she might have re­tired had Hil­lary Clin­ton won in 2016) would sign off on a slew of in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and what she calls the “brazen cor­rup­tion, crony­ism and in­com­pe­tence” of the GOP. Sources tell me that sub­poe­nas would fly like ticker tape on is­sues as di­verse as Trump’s long deal­ings with Rus­sia; his tax re­turns; al­leged money laun­der­ing by his fam­ily busi­nesses (and whether he, by main­tain­ing stakes in those busi­nesses, is vi­o­lat­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion’s emol­u­ments clause); and abuses by Cab­i­net sec­re­taries of travel and of­fice ex­penses, as well as other mis­used perks. “She’s out to make his­tory,” a se­nior Demo­cratic House aide told me.

Pelosi, sev­enty-eight, hopes to be­come Amer­ica’s twenty-first-cen­tury sav­ior with­out pay­ing too much at­ten­tion to the pesky pro­gres­sive up­starts con­verg­ing on her podium. She knows the so-called in­sur­gents in the party de­spise her and de­plore her longevity in of­fice, which they think is cor­rupt­ing (as are the tenures of Mi­nor­ity Whip Steny Hoyer, age sev­enty-nine, and As­sis­tant Mi­nor­ity Leader James Cly­burn, who’s in his late seven­ties as well). They also dis­trust the let’s-makea-deal prag­ma­tism of her three decades in the House.

The new Demo­cratic pro­gres­sives are an eclec­tic bunch of po­lit­i­cal neo­phytes, many of them women, AfricanAmer­i­cans, and Lati­nas. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the twenty-eight-yearold Demo­cratic So­cial­ist, stunned the party in June by win­ning a pri­mary against long­time in­cum­bent Joe Crow­ley in New York’s 14th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict. But they ap­pear united on one point: a new gen­er­a­tion of Democrats is needed. They are tired of Pelosi’s tem­po­riz­ing over pop­u­lar neoso­cial­ist pro­grams like Medi­care-for-all and free-col­lege-for-all. (“It’s all on the ta­ble,” Pelosi has said more re­cently.) They are fed up with a party lead­er­ship that is for­ever mak­ing con­ces­sions on deficit re­duc­tion and that still gets much of its cam­paign fund­ing from Wall Street and the health care in­dus­try.

Much of this anger is a holdover from the dis­as­trous 2016 elec­tion, when, af­ter van­quish­ing Bernie San­ders in the pri­maries, Hil­lary Clin­ton largely ig­nored his mes­sage and went straight for the cen­ter. Even so, Pelosi, who has led the Democrats for fif­teen years, doesn’t seem too wor­ried about her abil­ity to con­trol the po­ten­tial blue wave. The in­de­fati­ga­ble dis­ci­plinar­ian who lost not a sin­gle vote in her Demo­cratic ranks on the two ma­jor GOP pol­icy ini­tia­tives of Trump’s first year—re­peal­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act and rewrit­ing the tax code—thinks she can han­dle them. But per­haps Pelosi should be care­ful what she wishes for. She and her al­lies in the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment like to com­pare this midterm elec­tion to the one in 2006, which marked her first rise to the speak­er­ship and her suc­cess­ful stand against Ge­orge W. Bush’s ef­fort to pri­va­tize So­cial Se­cu­rity. But the scarier—and pos­si­bly more ac­cu­rate— anal­ogy for the Democrats is what hap­pened to the Repub­li­cans in 2010. Like the GOP eight years ago, the Democrats are quite likely to win back the House thanks to a surge of anger against an un­pop­u­lar first-term pres­i­dent. The darker side of that story, how­ever, is that it ul­ti­mately led to the de­struc­tion of the GOP as we know it. Like the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment fac­ing down the Tea Party af­ter 2010, the Democrats may re­main dan­ger­ously riven by ide­o­log­i­cal and gen­er­a­tional con­flict, as a pow­er­ful mi­nor­ity fac­tion grows openly con­temp­tu­ous of the party lead­er­ship, block­ing it at ev­ery turn.

The pro­gres­sives won’t dom­i­nate the cau­cus, but af­ter a rol­lick­ing pri­mary sea­son it has be­come im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore them. Cer­tainly Pelosi can no longer dis­miss Oca­sio-Cortez’s vic­tory as merely “one dis­trict,” as she did in June—es­pe­cially af­ter Ayanna Press­ley, run­ning on the slo­gan “Change Can’t Wait,” de­feated an­other well-en­trenched in­cum­bent, Michael Ca­puano, in Septem­ber in Mas­sachusetts’s 7th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict. Ac­cord­ing to the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Pri­maries Project, an un­prece­dented num­ber of self-iden­ti­fied pro­gres­sive can­di­dates ran this year, though es­tab­lish­ment Democrats did bet­ter, win­ning 139 pri­mary races, com­pared to 101 for pro­gres­sives. Many pro­gres­sives have lit­tle hope of win­ning in Novem­ber be­cause they’re run­ning in moder­ate or con­ser­va­tive dis­tricts, so the size of the com­ing pro­gres­sive “sub­cau­cus”—as Oca­sioCortez wish­fully called it—is not clear. But things have changed so rad­i­cally that one big-spend­ing Bernie-ite, Randy Bryce, may be able in in­creas­ingly red Wis­con­sin to take the seat of re­tir­ing Speaker Paul Ryan, whose chief con­cern was to cut the bud­get. Pelosi, if she re­gains the speak­er­ship, could eas­ily be­come the John Boehner of her era, end­lessly frus­trated by her in­abil­ity to unite the party in the face of fierce dis­sent from what might now be called the San­ders/Oca­sio-Cortez/ Press­ley wing. The new pro­gres­sives may be­come a kind of Tea Party of the left, though in­stead of seek­ing to tear down the gov­ern­ment, they will try to dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand it—be­yond where the es­tab­lish­ment wants to go.


Democrats win the House (and the Se­nate, though that’s still con­sid­ered a long shot), the best-case sce­nario for the party may be that, as Repub­li­cans did af­ter 2010, they fall back on their com­mon ha­tred for the man in the White House.

The temp­ta­tion to do this will be enor­mous: ac­cord­ing to Gary Ja­cob­son, a scholar at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego who has tracked elec­toral data go­ing back to the 1940s, a sit­ting pres­i­dent has never been as cen­tral an is­sue in a midterm elec­tion as Trump is in 2018. De­spite an un­em­ploy­ment rate that is near mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury lows and other good eco­nomic news, pub­lic out­rage at Trump’s of­fen­sive poli­cies and state­ments—the “Mus­lim ban,” the sepa­ra­tion of fam­i­lies seek­ing asy­lum, his cease­less bar­rage of in­sults aimed at women, African-Amer­i­cans, and other mi­nori­ties—has kept him at 50 per­cent­plus dis­ap­proval rat­ings, ac­cord­ing to most ma­jor polls. To be­come a party that stands for lit­tle else than oust­ing a hated pres­i­dent is an en­tic­ing but per­ilous path—es­pe­cially if you fail.

The Repub­li­can Party es­tab­lish­ment lost its base af­ter Mitt Rom­ney’s de­feat in 2012, and one can trace a di­rect line from that reck­on­ing to the rise of the in­cen­di­ary pop­ulist out­sider who cost the party its soul (or, at the very least, its plat­form) and has since be­come the GOP’s sole owner and pro­pri­etor. Or wit­ness those six­teen hap­less Trump ri­vals in the 2016 GOP pri­maries, sev­eral of whom (like Rom­ney) tried and failed to square the de­mands of the base with the ev­i­dence of their more rea­son­able vot­ing records (the ex­cep­tion be­ing Ted Cruz, who came in sec­ond to Trump). It wasn’t un­til Au­gust, af­ter Trump was nom­i­nated, that Repub­li­cans re­ally knew—for good or ill—who or what they were vot­ing for. Win or lose on Novem­ber 6, Pelosi will have a pack of pro­gres­sives at her back—and so will the even­tual Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee in 2020. For the Democrats this reck­on­ing is ul­ti­mately about whether their lead­er­ship can fi­nally ac­knowl­edge that since the Rea­gan era they’ve too often been a party of counter-punch­ers. They’ve sought merely to tem­per free-mar­ket ide­ol­ogy with­out of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive vi­sion of their own. Judg­ing from her 2017 mem­oir, What Hap­pened, and var­i­ous post­mortems, Hil­lary Clin­ton still doesn’t seem to fully grasp—or at least ad­mit—that the seeds of the (largely white) work­ing-class dis­tress that sank her cam­paign were planted dur­ing her hus­band’s pres­i­dency, with its em­brace of Wall Street dereg­u­la­tion and GOP-driven deficit-cut­ting that left a pit­tance for job re­train­ing and ad­just­ment pro­grams.

Barack Obama did lit­tle bet­ter. Per­haps the great­est irony of his “Yes, we can” pres­i­dency was that in­come in­equal­ity ac­tu­ally in­creased dur­ing his terms. Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion failed to send a sin­gle ma­jor Wall Street, real es­tate, or in­sur­ance ex­ec­u­tive to jail de­spite their com­plic­ity in the big­gest se­cu­ri­ties fraud in his­tory. Un­der pres­sure from the right, Obama too be­came a proud deficit cut­ter. And he sub­mit­ted to his fi­nan­cial gu­rus, Tim Gei­th­ner and Larry Sum­mers, when they ar­gued that the moral haz­ard of bail­ing out mil­lions of des­per­ate un­der­wa­ter home­own­ers was far too risky, even as they shrugged off the moral haz­ard of bail­ing out big banks.

Is it any won­der that many Democrats no longer trusted their party when it fell into the hands of Hil­lary, the ul­ti­mate heir to this sta­tus quo? Or that San­ders, the wild-haired, Wall Street– bash­ing so­cial­ist who for most of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer had spo­ken to empty

rooms, sud­denly be­came the dar­ling of the base in 2016?

Win in Novem­ber, and Democrats can prob­a­bly pa­per over their dif­fer­ences for a while with a com­mon ef­fort to rid the coun­try of an odi­ous pres­i­dent. (Although Pelosi’s cau­tion on im­peach­ment—she for­bade any men­tion of it dur­ing the pri­maries—could cost her more cred­i­bil­ity with the base. And if she tries to cut any deal with Trump—for ex­am­ple, on in­fra­struc­ture, which is one of her pri­or­i­ties— she’s cer­tain to face fur­ther back­lash.) Lose in Novem­ber, and Pelosi, Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer, and the rest will find them­selves in­stantly en­gulfed by a re­newed in­sur­gency that will cry, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that the nearly $100 mil­lion Pelosi raised for Demo­cratic can­di­dates in the cam­paign—much of it from cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy Amer­i­cans—only points to her own cor­rup­tion and crony­ism. Or as San­ders’s top pol­icy ad­viser, War­ren Gun­nels, told me, “You can’t re­form Wall Street by tak­ing its money.”

It is a bit­ter irony for Pelosi that she is be­ing cast both as the em­bod­i­ment of the hated mid­dle by her own Demo­cratic base and as the de­mon of the left by GOP cam­paigns. And she’s plainly miffed that in the “Year of the Woman”—with more women than ever run­ning for of­fice, and in which Pelosi fi­nally ap­peared on the cover of Time—she has got­ten so lit­tle credit from women. (Her over­all ap­proval rat­ings have hov­ered around 30 per­cent.) Just as Hil­lary Clin­ton tried to win votes by not­ing that her can­di­dacy was “his­toric” be­cause she was a woman, Pelosi in­sists that she needs to run for Speaker so that a woman “has a seat at the ta­ble” in Trump’s mostly male Wash­ing­ton. In the #MeToo era, that should carry con­sid­er­able weight, es­pe­cially af­ter the ran­corous Se­nate hear­ings in Oc­to­ber on Brett Ka­vanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court and his con­fir­ma­tion de­spite al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault.

But it prob­a­bly won’t be enough. True, Pelosi is often un­der­es­ti­mated. As the first fe­male Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011, she proved far more ef­fec­tive than most of the men who had pre­ceded her. In Au­gust the New York Times colum­nist Paul Krug­man called her “the great­est speaker of modern times” for mas­ter­fully push­ing through one ma­jor piece of leg­is­la­tion af­ter an­other, among them the $840 bil­lion stim­u­lus pack­age, the Af­ford­able Care Act, the Dodd-Frank bank­ing-re­form bill, and the Lilly Led­bet­ter Fair Pay Act. Yet the pro­gres­sives dis­miss these achieve­ments as just more in­cre­men­tal change. And Pelosi shares an­other un­for­tu­nate trait with Hil­lary: she tends to speak of progress in dron­ing plat­i­tudes. Like Hil­lary, she knows how to gov­ern, but not how to in­spire vot­ers.

Great Speak­ers of the House, of course, are not ex­pected to in­spire. They are ex­pected to get things done. (Sam Ray­burn, like Pelosi, pre­ferred to work qui­etly be­hind the scenes.) But Pelosi doesn’t seem to fully re­al­ize the depth and rage of the Demo­cratic rev­o­lu­tion at hand: the base, yearn­ing for youth, pas­sion, gen­der eq­uity, and, above all, some­body dif­fer­ent, is fed up with sta­tus-quo Democrats. The base is dis­gusted by a cen­trist ide­ol­ogy that has long seemed out of date, judg­ing from mid­dle- and work­ing-class anger over the bru­tally un­equal so­ci­ety Amer­ica has be­come un­der both Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tions dur­ing the last four decades. And the base wants the party to start look­ing like Amer­ica it­self by bring­ing more mi­nori­ties and women into power.

Elec­toral data sug­gest that the Demo­cratic Party base is as di­vided and fired up as the GOP was eight years ago. Ac­cord­ing to an Ax­ios anal­y­sis of Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion data, “more Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­dates have com­peted in the 2018 elec­tion cy­cle than ei­ther party at­tracted in any cy­cle since 1980,” and the last time ei­ther party come close to hav­ing as many con­gres­sional can­di­dates was the Tea Party re­volt of 2010.

“It’s very much like 2010,” Henry Olsen, a widely re­spected elec­tion an­a­lyst in Wash­ing­ton and au­thor of The Work­ing Class Repub­li­can: Ron­ald Rea­gan and the Re­turn of Blue-Col­lar Con­ser­vatism (2017), told me. “And it def­i­nitely plays through to 2020 if for no other rea­son than that the Demo­cratic in­sur­gency will want to nom­i­nate one of its own. I don’t see how this stops. They want to run the party.” The new pro­gres­sives also ap­pear less will­ing to com­pro­mise than their pre­de­ces­sors. “I think it’s pos­si­ble this is a dif­fer­ent sort of left,” Olsen said—a re­bel­lion that harks back to the bit­ter in­tra­party splits of 1968 and 1980. Or as Beto O’Rourke, the pro­gres­sive who’s mak­ing a se­ri­ous run at Ted Cruz’s Se­nate seat, told NPR this sum­mer, “The only thing that you’re go­ing to find in the mid­dle of the road are yel­low lines and dead ar­madil­los.”

Some in Pelosi’s camp dis­miss the 2010 anal­ogy al­to­gether—and in terms that sound omi­nously like Hil­lary’s fate­ful “de­plorables” com­ment from 2016. “What you had in 2010 was a bunch of freaks show up here,” said the se­nior Demo­cratic House aide.

Not only were they ob­sessed with Obama, they were also ob­sessed with tear­ing down gov­ern­ment. That’s not what our can­di­dates are in­ter­ested in. So I don’t see it as the same at all. Yes, I’m hop­ing for a flip that size. We’ll see. I’m hop­ing it’s more like 2006.

His­tory, of course, doesn’t re­peat it­self pre­cisely. Af­ter 2010, House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee Chair­man Dar­rell Issa des­per­ately sought to get Obama im­peached, call­ing him “one of the most cor­rupt pres­i­dents in modern times,” but in the end Issa un­cov­ered no wrong­do­ing. To­day, an in­ves­ti­ga­tory jug­ger­naut ap­pears to be com­ing at Trump, and the Democrats have Robert Mueller and the South­ern Dis­trict of New York on their side. More­over, it now looks as if the Tea Party was less an in­sur­gency of small-gov­ern­ment ide­al­ists than it was a back­lash against mi­nori­ties and im­mi­grants (which is why Trump so suc­cess­fully ab­sorbed it into his own move­ment).

Elaine Ka­marck, a for­mer se­nior ad­viser to Al Gore and the lead au­thor

of the Brook­ings study, ac­knowl­edged that the new strength of pro­gres­sives flows out of the un­re­solved con­flicts of the 2016 pri­mary cam­paign. But Ka­marck ar­gues that the party has al­ready ad­justed by mov­ing left. “Ev­ery­body is for be­ing tough on Wall Street, and there’s a con­sen­sus that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion screwed up by not be­ing tougher,” she told me. “We are all for com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion re­form. I’m a moder­ate my­self, and I’m for Medi­care-for-all.” Ka­marck in­sists that pro­gres­sives and mod­er­ates are much closer in out­look than the Tea Party and the GOP lead­er­ship were, and as soon as the new­com­ers face the ac­tual chal­lenge of gov­ern­ing, they will drop some of their more ex­treme po­si­tions, like dis­band­ing Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment.

But that line sounds sim­i­lar to what the GOP lead­er­ship ar­gued af­ter 2010, when Boehner’s team found it­self sur­prised, again and again, by the Tea Party’s willing­ness to shut down the gov­ern­ment. And un­til the Demo­cratic Party es­tab­lish­ment truly reck­ons with its pol­icy fail­ures—that it aban­doned the mid­dle class to glob­al­iza­tion, tech­no­log­i­cal change, un­der­wa­ter-mort­gage hell, and sys­temic fraud by Wall Street— it won’t ap­pease its pro­gres­sive wing. The Democrats may not achieve real peace un­til they nom­i­nate a fiery pop­ulist such as El­iz­a­beth War­ren or even San­ders. De­spite his ad­vanced age (sev­enty-seven), San­ders may be the most pop­u­lar Demo­crat in the coun­try (though he’s still tech­ni­cally an in­de­pen­dent), and he’s the chief in­sti­ga­tor of the left­ward lurch that Pelosi would like to pre­tend isn’t hap­pen­ing. San­ders and War­ren are also the only na­tional can­di­dates who have put out any sub­stan­tive new ideas re­cently: for ex­am­ple San­ders’s Medi­care-for-all bill and War­ren’s Ac­count­able Cap­i­tal­ism Act, which would force ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions to con­sider the in­ter­ests of the com­mu­ni­ties they op­er­ate in and give work­ers the right to elect 40 per­cent of their boards.

Peo­ple in the Demo­cratic es­tab­lish­ment like to dis­miss the party’s dif­fer­ences as mostly gen­er­a­tional, but to politi­cians of Oca­sio-Cortez’s gen­er­a­tion, who came of age wit­ness­ing cap­i­tal­ism’s big­gest fail­ure since the 1930s, “demo­cratic so­cial­ism” car­ries none of the bag­gage that it did for peo­ple who grew up dur­ing the cold war and its tri­umphal­ist af­ter­math, when it was thought that “demo­cratic cap­i­tal­ism” was go­ing to save the world. Gun­nels, San­ders’s pol­icy ad­viser, noted that even the Koch brothers pub­lished a poll in July show­ing that large ma­jori­ties of Amer­i­cans sup­ported gov­ern­ment­funded col­lege and a gov­ern­ment-run health care sys­tem. “What I find most ex­hil­a­rat­ing is that is­sues [San­ders] was talk­ing about two or three years ago were con­sid­ered fringe, rad­i­cal ideas, and now they are smack dab in the main­stream of Amer­ica,” Gun­nels told me.

More to the point, many of the in­sur­gent Democrats be­lieve that the only way to take on Trump is on his own terms: with bold, rad­i­cal ideas that re­buke the cur­rent ide­olo­gies of both par­ties. That is still anath­ema to most main­stream Democrats, who be­lieve that a San­ders or War­ren nom­i­na­tion in 2020 would be a catas­tro­phe. They point to the ex­or­bi­tant costs of pro­gres­sive pro­grams (though up against a Repub­li­can Party that no longer seems to care about deficits, that may be less of an is­sue). Who­ever the nom­i­nee is, if he or she loses to Trump, the new Democrats will be in as much dis­ar­ray as the GOP was af­ter 2012, par­tic­u­larly if an im­peach­ment ef­fort against the pres­i­dent fails.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are ter­ri­fied. Bill Pascrell is an eleven-term con­gress­man from Pater­son, New Jer­sey, a dis­trict that, like Michael Ca­puano’s Mas­sachusetts dis­trict, is a mix­ture of black, white, His­panic, Arab, and other work­ing-class eth­nic groups (the city’s cur­rent mayor, An­dré Sayegh, is of Le­banese and Syr­ian de­scent). Pater­son is be­set with high crime and cor­rup­tion (the pre­vi­ous mayor is in prison), and its un­em­ploy­ment rate is more than twice the na­tional av­er­age. Pascrell, an eighty-one-year-old na­tive (and a for­mer mayor him­self), ac­knowl­edged he was lucky enough to face a weak pri­mary chal­lenger. Though he’s vir­tu­ally as­sured to win in Novem­ber in his deep-blue dis­trict, he says he’s tak­ing no chances, and he’s spend­ing more time in the city than usual. “No one is go­ing to be coro­nated this elec­tion,” Pascrell told me in Septem­ber. Pascrell is an old friend and ally of Ca­puano’s, a fel­low Ital­ian-Amer­i­can, and he called his de­feated col­league the morn­ing af­ter the Mas­sachusetts pri­mary elec­tion to of­fer con­do­lences. I asked Pascrell how the re­li­ably pro­gres­sive Ca­puano, who had one of the most lib­eral vot­ing records in Congress over ten terms, could lose so badly. Even Press­ley, who is AfricanAmer­i­can, con­ceded in an Au­gust de­bate with Ca­puano that they would “vote the same way”; she said that the main dif­fer­ence be­tween them was her “lived ex­pe­ri­ence.”

One rea­son for the up­set, Pascrell re­sponded, is that vot­ers just want some­thing new, and in an Amer­ica so vi­ciously po­lar­ized by race, eth­nic­ity, and gen­der, the new is often some­one they can iden­tify with along pre­cisely those lines. “There’s some­thing more im­por­tant hap­pen­ing than your vot­ing record,” Pascrell said.

It may be your age or your gen­der, or it could be eth­nic. Some peo­ple where I come from say, “I’m not go­ing to vote for any­body un­less they’re Ital­ian.” That’s good for me, but the chal­lenge for all of us is: How do you take iden­tity pol­i­tics and make a stew out of it rather than iso­lat­ing the pota­toes from the meat? That’s not an easy thing to do any­more.

Pascrell noted that an­other old friend on the Hill, Joe Crow­ley, failed to do just that against Oca­sio-Cortez in his Bronx-Queens dis­trict, which was once mostly white work­ing-class but is now nearly 50 per­cent His­panic.

Pascrell ac­knowl­edged that the com­ing pro­gres­sive in­sur­gency isn’t go­ing away any­time soon. Thus he, like many es­tab­lish­ment Democrats, has been care­ful not to en­dorse Pelosi as Speaker be­fore the elec­tion. In July, re­spond­ing to the large num­ber of Demo­cratic House mem­bers who had pledged not to vote for her, Pascrell or­ga­nized a din­ner along with Ca­puano and John Lar­son of Con­necti­cut at which twenty rep­re­sen­ta­tives signed a let­ter urg­ing

that the Speaker vote be put off un­til De­cem­ber. Pelosi re­luc­tantly agreed. Pascrell said, “I have the great­est re­spect for Nancy, but we’re not in any way, shape, or form ready for such a vote.” He added that he’s “not go­ing to sup­port her in the first vote in the cau­cus”—though he won’t say which al­ter­na­tive can­di­date he might back—but if there isn’t a per­sua­sive con­tender he might sup­port Pelosi in the open House vote in the sec­ond round. “If we’ve got to re­place her with some­one else, then my re­sponse is, ‘Tell me then, who is that?’”

Pelosi seems con­fi­dent that she can over­come the re­sis­tance and, un­like Boehner and Ryan, keep her un­ruly party in line as she has done in the past. She is a more ag­ile leg­is­la­tor than ei­ther Boehner or Ryan was. For most of her long ca­reer Pelosi has been cast by the right as a dan­ger­ous lib­eral from wack­adoo­dle-lefty San Fran­cisco. But in prac­tice her pro­gres­sivism has al­ways been trans­ac­tional, far more like the ma­chine pol­i­tics she learned from her fa­ther, Thomas D’Ale­san­dro, who was the mayor of Bal­ti­more and a con­gress­man. To­day’s Demo­cratic in­sur­gents won’t be as will­ing to ac­cept the sorts of com­pro­mises Pelosi had to make to save Oba­macare: throw­ing out sin­gle­payer as well as the pub­lic op­tion, and even al­low­ing lan­guage bar­ring the al­lo­ca­tion of fed­eral funds to abor­tion. Neera Tan­den, the pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, which sup­ported Clin­ton in 2016, told me that who­ever is nom­i­nated in 2020 will need to be not just ide­o­log­i­cally cor­rect, but the right sort of coun­ter­bully. “Don­ald Trump is the ten-thou­sand-pound go­rilla in the Demo­cratic Party,” she said. “The is­sue is who can de­feat him. Who can deal with neg­a­tive cam­paign­ing, who can deal with neg­a­tive as­saults.” Still, Tan­den said, Democrats need to fig­ure out how to up­end Trump’s ap­peal. “My base­line is­sue is that bad an­swers will beat no an­swers,” she said, sum­ming up the 2016 race. Clin­ton had few an­swers other than sev­en­point plans on her web­site, which most vot­ers were un­likely to con­sult. Trump had loud and clear sound-bites for the work­ing class—no mat­ter how spu­ri­ous. “I fun­da­men­tally be­lieve the Demo­cratic Party has not of­fered a real an­swer on how to cre­ate up­ward mo­bil­ity for peo­ple who haven’t gone to col­lege,” Tan­den said. “We have to re­think the en­tire so­cial con­tract for the twenty-first cen­tury.” Whether Pelosi be­comes Speaker or not, that is the prob­lem Democrats will be deal­ing with. —Oc­to­ber 10, 2018

Nancy Pelosi

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