How do you unite the party of Ocasio-Cortez and Manchin? Ask Nancy Pelosi
Perhaps inevitably, since Election Day the Politico-Axios axis of short-termism and palace intrigue has been consumed with the “race” for speaker of the House. It’s not really a race, though. Nancy Pelosi says she has the votes, and unlike her GOP colleagues who’ve tried their hand at the speakership in recent years, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t lose many votes — certainly not ones this consequential. As incoming Democratic caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries told the New York Times last month, “No one’s a better vote-counter than Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi.”
Yet despite her lengthy track record of bringing Democrats together when it counts (see: the Affordable Care Act), today’s political headlines suggest a new influx of progressive voices will make party unity next to impossible. After all, every pundit and political analyst knows Democrats are hopelessly divided, with their liberal and moderate wings just barely strung together by a few rapidly fraying threads. Progressive victories are “roiling the Democratic Party,” suggested Reuters in August. A “Democratic House Divided,” cried the New York Times just a week after Election Day. In July, Axios warned that Democratic momentum was so strong that the party could somehow be swamped by its own “progressive ‘Blue Wave.’”
As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt pointed out in May, the “Democrats in disarray” narrative has had far more staying power than the evidence suggests it should. But the lingering question remains: As Democrats enter what’s sure to be a long and exhausting primary process, is there any way for them stay united through 2020 and beyond?
Yes. It’s simply a matter of following Nancy Pelosi’s lead — not just as the next speaker of the House, but as an example for how to unite a big-tent party that includes members from New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, from 85-year-old Dianne Feinstein to 29-year-old Abby Finkenauer.
Pelosi’s leadership formula is deceptively straightforward. She recognizes the different circumstances of different districts and members. She identifies the broad principles that members of her caucus share. She focuses relentlessly on the issues that reflect those core values. These steps take care of most of the caucus. And then she goes to work negotiating and compromising with the rest.
From 2007-2011, then-Speaker Pelosi led a House majority nearly as politically and ideologically diverse as the incoming one. The comparison to today’s party (and world) isn’t exact, but the record from her first stint with the speaker’s gavel shows what a supposedly hopelessly divided group of politicians can accomplish: Health insurance reform more progressive than the Affordable Care Act. Cap-and-trade legislation to fight climate change. Wall Street reforms that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A nearly trillion-dollar stimulus bill to combat the financial crisis. It was, as Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine in March, “the most aggressive spate of liberal reforms since the Great Society.”
Pelosi’s leadership hasn’t been without faults, of course — most prominently her failure to prepare a successor and bring new voices into power earlier in her tenure. But whether as speaker or minority leader, when it comes to holding together a complex and restive caucus, there’s no one better.
This list of attributes and accomplishments is not to tout Pelosi’s credentials for the speakership (which are self-evident), but to point out that it’s nothing new for the Democratic umbrella to encompass a mix of left-leaning liberals, pro-business New Democrats, and socially conservative Blue Dogs. Democrats have always been old and young, from districts rural, urban, and suburban. Some have been in Congress for decades; others have been new to elected office. The Pelosi model channels these divergent perspectives into consensus by building a foundation of unifying principles, and working out the details later.
It’s a model of ends, not means; of fundamental principles, not specific policy prescriptions. Domestically, these core commitments include a broad agreement that all Americans have the right to affordable health care. That a decent job with a livable wage is a matter of dignity, not just economic security. That business, while driving growth, can also thrive alongside higher taxes and more stringent regulations. That income inequality is a toxic force that corporate interests won’t naturally sort out on their own. That government can play a constructive role in building a free and prosperous society.
On the international stage, Democrats believe that climate change is a real and urgent threat. That welcoming immigrants and refugees is a matter of both economics and values. That the United States can and must play a positive role beyond its borders through diplomacy and foreign assistance. That moral leadership on the world stage matters. That reckless military intervention is, well, reckless, but that America’s armed services can and do make the world a safer place.
These aren’t controversial positions among Democrats, though there’s plenty of disagreement within the party — let alone America as a whole — about how to realize them. Pelosi, for one, knows supporting Medicare-for-All doesn’t define a Democrat, but supporting universal health care does. She knows voting Democratic doesn’t mean endorsing a Green New Deal, but it does mean working urgently to tackle climate change. She knows Democrats aren’t necessarily devoted to a universal basic income, but they are devoted to reducing income inequality.
Principles represent the vision; legislation represents the art of the possible. Effective political leadership demands both. “We don’t twist arms,” Pelosi told National Journal in 2015. “We build consensus in our caucus. That’s what we have always done.” That’s the Nancy Pelosi model: Align on core principles, and figure out everything else as needed.
It’s a model worthy of the rest of the party, too, no matter who Democrats nominate for the presidency. Guided by core principles, there’s more than enough agreement to bring together progressives and centrists whose disagreements are said to be irreconcilable. There’s more than enough common ground to survive gritty debates, even bitter fights, behind closed doors and in the national spotlight. There’s more than enough of a shared vision to emerge from a long and drawn-out Democratic primary with momentum and unity. The Nancy Pelosi model is the path forward for the Democratic party.