Amid 'race card' allegations, Pelosi teaches Ocasio-Cortez a math lesson

Analysis: The more the New York lawmaker lashes out over the limits of her own influence, the more obvious those limits become — and the more the imbalance of power tilts in the speaker's direction.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) arrives to a House Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing at the Capitol
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is slowly learning a painful lesson about American politics at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's hands: Power is about numbers. Pelosi has them and Ocasio-Cortez does not.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — As they feud publicly, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is slowly learning a painful lesson about American politics at the hands of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Power is about numbers.

Pelosi has them and Ocasio-Cortez does not.

The more Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., lashes out over the limits of her own influence, the more obvious those limits become and the more the imbalance tilts in the direction of Pelosi, D-Calif. After all, their fellow politicians are nothing if not hypersensitive to even the slightest shifts in the winds of power.

Now, they're freely dunking on Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the wake of her not-so-veiled allegation that Pelosi is discriminating against her clique, known as "The Squad," because of their lack of seniority, their gender and their skin color.

The idea struck much of Washington as so ridiculous that the list of Pelosi's defenders included not only a legion of congressional Democrats but also Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and President Donald Trump.

"One thing we will not tolerate," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said, "is using the race question, otherwise known as the race card, on any member — especially a member who has an enviable record." If Pelosi had a problem on race, Norton added, "the whole world would know it."

Norton, 82, knows a thing or two about the obstacles young women of color face in society and politics: she attended segregated schools here, helped organize the 1963 civil rights march on Washington and served successively as the head of New York City's human rights commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Ocasio-Cortez said Friday that it is "stupidly untrue" to say she played the "race card" against Pelosi.

She is surely right about one thing: Pelosi has made an example out of The Squad — Ocasio-Cortez, along with Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Rashida Talib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — and helped them isolate themselves from the rest of the Democratic caucus as a party of four.

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The reality is that The Squad’s influence in American politics is more than four votes in the House — but less than its members seem to think.

In late June, as Pelosi was trying to put together a spending package to provide resources to the U.S. border with Mexico, she made concessions to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a much larger set of lawmakers that includes The Squad. Pelosi didn't just want to pass the bill; she wanted the entire Democratic caucus to vote for it so that she would have maximum possible leverage in negotiations with the more conservative Senate and White House.

Her negotiations with the progressive caucus proved fruitful — with four glaring exceptions. When it came time to vote, The Squad cast the only Democratic votes against the bill. That infuriated Pelosi, but it also gave her an opening to demonstrate to the rest of the caucus that Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort are an island unto themselves within the party.

When Pelosi subsequently went ahead and put the Senate's version of the bill on the floor — against the wishes of progressives — it was harder to argue with the logic that she couldn't fully trust that votes would materialize if she tried to amend it first.

In other words: the argument was progressives had only The Squad to blame for the failure to get a more liberal border bill. Whether that's true or not, Ocasio-Cortez and her friends certainly didn't make the case for themselves as team players with their votes against the original version.

At the same time, Pelosi began publicly calling them out for stirring up dissent on social media but failing to turn online activism into voting power in Congress.

"All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said in an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Then, in a closed-door caucus meeting this past week, when Pelosi admonished lawmakers not to use social media to attack each other, there wasn't any question whom she was targeting: in a tweet just days earlier, Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff had accused modern Southern Democrats of being like segregationists of old. "Our caucus is very upset about some of the comments that have come from the staffs," Pelosi told reporters as she left the meeting Wednesday.

In the past, separately and collectively, The Squad has gone to battle with fellow Democrats on political issues from primary elections to the influence of pro-Israel donors in American politics, as well as administrative matters such as the composition of House committees and policy issues like the situation on the border. To this point, these four lawmakers have created infinitely more headlines and headaches for the Democrats than they have legislative victories.

Ocasio-Cortez took particular umbrage at Pelosi's string of recent reprimands.

"When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez said this week in an interview with The Washington Post. “But the persistent singling out ... it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful ... the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”

The back-and-forth between the high-profile lawmakers has touched off a firestorm within the Democratic caucus that pulls at virtually every thread of intersectionality, but the most commonly expressed sentiment is that Ocasio-Cortez has crossed a lot of lines with a lot of lawmakers and has not shown her colleagues, including Pelosi, the kind of respect that she demands for herself.

As for the question of whether Pelosi is discriminating against The Squad on the basis of gender, seniority and skin color, most Democrats find that absurd.

"We all have a framework through which we see life and my framework is not one that is defined by my gender, race or background, and so I can’t relate to what has been said," Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a second-term Vietnamese American leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "I will say that my interactions with the speaker, when we disagree or if we agree, have always been professional, and I think that lack of professionalism [on the part of Ocasio-Cortez] is what we are seeing here."

Murphy, who often has clashed with Pelosi on policy and strategy, has found success in speaking the speaker's language — by bringing votes along with her to force negotiations on particular points of disagreement and by trying to find solutions rather than simply blocking legislation. She explained the tension between Pelosi and The Squad in those terms.

"I think it’s probably natural friction that’s due to the speaker, whose primary goal is to retain the majority and ride herd over a very diverse caucus, and the fact of the matter is not all of our colleagues are interested in legislating collaboratively and some of them may not be interested in legislating," she said.

The tension between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez has existed since before the latter was even sworn in, as they battled over a select committee on climate change. It was only a matter of time before it boiled over. But Pelosi, whose power derives from her ability to collect and count votes, didn't strike until the numbers were most clearly in her favor.

When she did, there were 227 Democrats in her camp and four in Ocasio-Cortez's. That's the kind of math lesson that should be hard to forget.