Call it Nancy Pelosi’s rules for radicals.
Using strategies she’s honed over decades, the speaker has managed to keep a sprawling freshman class in line — and on her side — despite breaking with them on issues ranging from impeachment to the “Green New Deal.”
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“I think there’s a level of empathy there,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a member of the progressive squad that has frequently been a target of the right, said of Pelosi’s approach to her class. “She certainly knows what it is to be singled out, and to be vilified.”
Through a combination of private huddles, public displays of support during recent controversies and closed-door chiding when she feels like they’ve gone too far, Pelosi has engendered a pool of goodwill with the newcomers that goes a long way, even when they may be at odds with her otherwise.
“You don’t want to be condescending, but you also have to be courageous enough to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do this,’ in the right way,” Pelosi told POLITICO recently when asked how she addresses the freshmen.
And so far, the Pelosi approach — a mix of her Italian grandmother sensibilities combined with an appeal to her activism roots and a “school mistress sternness,” as one member put it — seems to be working.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her liberal allies haven’t hesitated to publicly take on other senior Democrats, but they’ve yet to lash out at the speaker, even as she’s rejected their demands for impeachment and has no plans to put their signature legislative priorities — like Medicare for All — up for a vote.
And moderates — some of whom were privately fuming after Pelosi scolded them for voting with Republicans — have also held their fire, even when they disagreed with the speaker.
“I think it’s a combination of fear and respect,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “You understand the power of this office, speaker, and its potential impact on your future career and you tread carefully.”
Pelosi took a hard line against impeachment in an interview with The Washington Post published Monday, saying she didn’t think Trump was “worth” trying to evict from office. Pelosi’s statement was a relief to many of the caucus’ most vulnerable members; several reached out to her to express their gratitude, according to a Democratic source.
But even the caucus’ progressive firebrands, who have been demanding Trump’s impeachment for months, only gently disagreed with Pelosi.
“It’s really about having each other’s back,” Ocasio-Cortez, who has called for Trump’s impeachment, said in an interview Wednesday. “There’s always going to be disagreements about how we go about things, but it doesn’t mean that there’s division.”
Pelosi’s approach to Ocasio-Cortez and other notable members of the Class of 2018, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), is indicative of the leadership style that has allowed her to successfully steer a diverse, and often raucous, caucus for the past 16 years.
As speaker, Pelosi can essentially make or break a fledgling lawmaker’s career in an instant. She’s doled out prizes, like offering some freshmen prominent committee posts and even subcommittee chairmanships. And she’s also resisted pressure from the left to embrace some of the party’s most aggressive policies, which could be a death sentence for Democrats sitting in GOP districts.
In her first three months back in the speaker’s chair, Pelosi has sought to stay close to her new freshman class by planning meetings twice a month, as well as regular check-ins on the House floor. At a recent members-only dinner for the Democrats’ campaign arm, Pelosi was one of the last people there, making a point to sit at nearly every table to get face time with as many lawmakers as possible.
“We’re all constantly, like, ‘Does she sleep at all? How does she do it with the high heels?’” joked California Rep. Katie Hill, the freshman leadership representative.
Last week offered a notable misstep, as Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, struggled to contain the furor sparked by Omar’s controversial remarks about Israel supporters’ “dual allegiance,” a comment many colleagues said was anti-Semitic.
The ordeal lasted for days, distracting from the passage of their signature anti-corruption bill and dividing all corners of the caucus, with even senior lawmakers like Rep. Nita Lowey of New York taking to Twitter to demand that Omar apologize.
It led to emotional turmoil that was perhaps the closest some of the freshmen have come to publicly criticizing Pelosi. Ocasio Cortez, for instance, called out Democratic leadership but didn’t mention Pelosi by name.
Amid the media firestorm, Pelosi stood up for Omar, telling reporters, “I don’t believe it was intended as anti-Semitic,” giving Omar a hug the next day during a news conference on the Capitol steps. Pelosi also brokered a private meeting last week between Omar and Lowey, a close ally of the speaker, three days after their clash on Twitter.
A week later, Omar had only praise for Pelosi. “It’s been a joy, really to be here, at this historic moment with a leader that I admire,” she said in a brief interview.
The speaker has also publicly defended Tlaib after her calls to “impeach the motherf—er” drew scorn from Republicans and many of her fellow Democrats just days after arriving in the Capitol.
“I mean, I don’t like that language. I wouldn’t use that language,” Pelosi said in January. “I don’t, again, establish any language standards for my colleagues. But I don’t think it’s anything worse than what the president has said.”
Pelosi’s decision to defend her colleagues in the line of fire — under the fierce scrutiny of the national media — has helped cement their support for her, multiple lawmakers said.
“A number of them have personally felt her have their back at a time when not a lot of members were doing that,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said in an interview. “She has consistently been a strong advocate for folks and I think that goes really far with goodwill.”
But Pelosi’s approach isn’t all carrot.
She took an aggressive tack last month, when dozens of her own members began voting for GOP procedural votes.
“This is not a day at the beach,” Pelosi chided the moderates on trying to avoid tough political votes. The move left some freshmen in red districts angry, though the group has refrained from criticizing her publicly.
Then in a meeting this week, Pelosi sought to use her personal appeal to win over freshmen who had been skeptical of her approach and wanted to be allowed to vote with Republicans for political reasons.
Hiding behind leadership would ultimately be a “stinkaroo” for vulnerable lawmakers in tough districts, Pelosi said in a meeting Wednesday with several freshmen present, according to a source in the room.
In her talks with freshmen, she uses a familiar refrain: Put it all on the table.
On divisive issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Pelosi is careful never to shoot it down. But she’ll subtly lay out her stance, like when she brushed aside Ocasio-Cortez’s signature climate change proposal as “the green dream or whatever.”
“She’s a mom, she’s a grandma, she knows how to do that,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the progressive caucus, said with a chuckle. “She is a master, she really is.”
Andrew Desiderio, Melanie Zanona and John Bresnahan contributed.