Forget AOC—Pelosi Has a Problem With Raging Moderates Now
Usually, it’s been the left forming groups to torment the speaker or announce non-negotiable demands. Now centrist Democrats are getting in on that game.
Now she’s dealing with a new problem with her fuselage. It’s her moderates that she can’t fly without. They’re not alright and are no longer quietly going along with the program. Nine of them formed a group and last weekend splashed their objections to the speaker holding traditional infrastructure hostage to the human kind across the op-ed page of The Washington Post, publicly telling her: Let’s take the win. Let’s do infrastructure first.
Despite Pelosi’s practiced arm-twisting, they persisted, standing firm on a date certain for a vote on the $1.2 trillion “real” infrastructure bill decoupled from the partisan $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. They want to take actual infrastructure that delivers actual roads, runways and tunnels home, instead of having all that held hostage to the biggest social welfare bill since the Great Society that would expand child tax credits, establish paid family leave and fund universal preschool and that’s certain to be uniformly opposed by Republicans given the price tag. Pelosi may be a San Francisco Democrat but she’s sensitive to losing her gavel were voters to link a bridge not built to a community college not charged for. Cue the Midnight Basketball ads in swing districts.
Pelosi negotiated into the night Monday but missed the first Tuesday deadline for an agreement because moderates were holding out for promises—don’t trust but verify—that the two bills would be wrenched apart, never to be joined again. House Rules Chair Jim McGovern said of the separation that it doesn’t take a village but “a therapist” to attain and advised a colleague not to make plans for dinner. He told Politico he’d be moving on from “therapy to shock treatment.”
But the Capitol Grill is back on. A deal came together in time for Joe Biden to praise Pelosi at his 5 p.m. press conference. The moderates won a guaranteed, in-writing, vote on the bipartisan hard infrastructure bill for highways and tunnels by no later than Sept. 27—meaning it is likely to be voted on before the dicier reconciliation bill that got a rule passed with Democrats united to consider a “framework” for human infrastructure somewhere down the line.
This is not what progressives wanted—and it may or may not have been Pelosi’s first choice. The lasting takeaway is that a formerly quiet group of moderates asserted themselves publicly and got what they wanted. Don’t bet on it being the last.
The system works best for Pelosi’s generation of Democrats when the left dreams and the moderates quietly pursue the middle ground. Moderates generally don’t form little groups to torment the speaker or announce their non-negotiable demands. They like a closed door. If they cause trouble, with rare exceptions, it’s the good kind John Lewis spoke of, not the kind that imperils party unity. These Democrats are pragmatists, stitching messy coalitions together even when the seams show. Many belong to the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that marks them as boring do-gooders of the kind that makes Biden’s eyes misty with nostalgia and cable bookers’ eyes glaze over.
The House Nine were led by Josh Gottheimer, largely unknown outside New Jersey before his clash with Pelosi. He’s the classic young fogey, impressing old fogies enough to land a Senate internship at age 16 followed by ones with the secretary of the Senate and the late Speaker of the House Tom Foley. After a stint at Oxford, he joined the Clinton White House in 1998 as a speechwriter at age 23. With a few stops to become well-rounded in the private sector, he won an urban House seat dotted with rural pockets in 2016. He’s threaded the needle to get re-elected there ever since.
In other words, he’s the kind of middle-of-the-roader that the speaker could count on not to rock the boat, or the budget bill, while she managed progressives who form gangs with names, claim the moral high ground, and harbor an unconscious wish to martyr themselves if they don’t get their way, but not so unconscious their threats shouldn’t be taken seriously.
But going forward, Pelosi will have to work her magic on a new flank. Listen to Bill Galston, a co-founder of the Problem Solvers Caucus, after the deal: “The Nine have finally broken the complete stranglehold that congressional leadership, on both sides, have had over the legislative process for a decade or more. But while the Nine won an important battle, the war is still to come.”
That doesn’t sound like a truce is being called, yet never have Democrats been more in need of all getting along to hold on to their slim majority in 2022—a prospect that is hard historically and harder still after a summer that’s been anything but the return to normalcy we expected. We’ve left Afghanistan after 20 year, but in deadly chaos. There are wildfires scorching California, floods in Tennessee, houses destroyed along the East Coast by Henri. Rather than return to pre-COVID times, we’re masked and wary of going indoors. Epsilon and Lambda variants have already emerged hard on the heels of Delta. If it keeps up, we’ll blow through the Greek alphabet like we ran out of American names for tropical storms. Biden didn’t cause all this but with Democrats in charge of all three branches of government, he owns it.
Ensuring the visible infrastructure will pass, not freighted with the more difficult, as yet unfinished, human one, gets Democrats a much-needed win to take home to voters. Pelosi—I hope Biden’s called the White House florist or offered her recurring guest privileges at Camp David—pulled it out one more time but it’s just gotten harder going forward. The speaker was reminded, echoes of Will Rogers, that she belongs to no organized political party. She’s a Democrat.