Pelosi vs AOC: not just the Greatest Generation vs the Squad

I thought about describing the brewing Democratic civil war as a purely generational battle. At 79, Nancy Pelosi is one of the few members of the “Greatest Generation” left in politics. At 29, her would-be nemesis Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is a youngish millennial. The half century that separates them is an aeon. One of them is experienced, patient and frustratingly pragmatic. The other is raw, hurried and impossibly idealistic.

The same, broadly speaking, is true of the cohorts around them. Pelosi’s senior lieutenants are all over sixty. Some, such as Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader (80) and James Clyburn, the chief whip (79) are older than the speaker. By contrast, AOC’s so-called Squad, using Pelosi’s derogatory term — Ayanna Pressley (45), Rashida Tlaib (42) and Ilhan Omar (37) — are either generation X or millennial.

But there is more to it than age. The split is also ideological and temperamental. Bernie Sanders (77) belongs with the Squad; Joe Biden (76) with the Speaker. The gap between them — and the mutual irritation — is going to widen in the coming months.

Which of them will prevail? The odds are with Pelosi’s camp. Whatever the speaker’s faults, she is the tallest standing elected Democrat. As the twice elected speaker, and the first woman to hold that job, no Democrat can match her experience. Her record isn’t bad either. We call the Affordable Healthcare Act “Obamacare”. It would be fairer to have dubbed it “PelosiCare”. The bill would not have passed without her floor skills (and ability to count…). It probably would not have survived without her either. Moreover, she keeps getting the better of Donald Trump. Almost uniquely among his enemies, Trump has not found a nickname that will stick to Pelosi. He tried “nervous Nancy” but that failed. Then he just settled on just “Nancy”. Compared to “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie” and “Sleepy Joe”, Nancy sounds just fine. No other Democrats comes off better against Trump more frequently.

Against Pelosi is the fact that she is having a hard time holding the Trump administration to account, which is the first branch’s primary duty. The longer her henchmen take to secure Trump’s tax returns, and a thousand other subpoenas, the greater the pressure to begin impeachment proceedings. If Pelosi fails to oblige, which I think she will because she believes it would backfire, the Democratic split could turn into open rebellion.

What has AOC got going for her? The obvious answer is grassroots and energy. Pelosi may command the House but AOC rules Twitter. She also embodies the spirit of the liberal base, which is more energised than since the Iraq War. The problem is that grassroots radicals tend to overplay their hand. It is one thing to demand a strong climate change plan, which is thankfully central to the Democratic nomination debate. It is another to push candidates into supporting slavery reparations and other suicidal positions.

The best outcome for the Democrats would be to find a combination — neither Biden nor Sanders, but someone who can capture the wave without turning into a George McGovern. So far Kamala Harris and Peter Buttigieg seem to be closest to that ideal. But Elizabeth Warren cannot be ruled out. Rana, as a fellow Gen X-er, which side of the divide do you land?

Recommended reading

  • My column this week argues that Trump is splintering the west. The brutal efficiency with which he forced out Sir Kim Darroch as Britain’s ambassador in Washington, and the way Boris Johnson meekly ratified it, augurs badly both for the special relationship and America’s commitment to the western alliance in general. The postwar order is breaking up more rapidly than even the pessimists feared.
  • My colleague, Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, has an insightful piece about her fellow French citizen Christine Lagarde, who is to become the new head of the European Central Bank. Lagarde, like many women in public life, has often been plagued by self-doubt and the “imposter syndrome”. I remember having a conversation about precisely this phenomenon with my former colleague, Lucy Kellaway. In Lagarde’s case, there is the extra concern that she is not, in fact, an economist. “Once again, Lagarde is breaking the glass ceiling — and facing a chorus of doubters,” writes Anne-Sylvaine. “They have valid concerns this time.”
  • Finally, Thomas Wright has a characteristically incisive piece about phase three of Trump’s foreign policy. This time it may be curtains for John Bolton — the man who never met a diplomatic solution that couldn’t be improved by war. Bolton was in what used to be called Outer Mongolia earlier this month when Trump raised the prospect of a North Korea nuclear freeze — and was clearly outraged not to have been consulted. “Men like Pompeo [and Bolton] may tell themselves they can steer Trump in a different direction,” says Wright. “But if they finally stand up to him, they may find themselves with urgent business to attend to in Ulaanbaatar”.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, I’m stylistically closer to the Speaker (and I admire her toughness) but I’ll brace myself for the hate mail and say I probably fall a bit closer to the Squad on some key election issues like student debt (I thought AOC’s quip the other day about it being easier to go from being a waitress to a Congress member than it is to pay off student loans was very smart) and healthcare. On the latter issue in particular, I think we need much more radical change than party centrists will advocate for.

I have what is supposed to be “decent” private healthcare and I spend hours each month on the phone struggling to get reimbursement and recoup claims mishandled by an insurance company that I suspect uses delay and opacity as part of its business model. This is shadow work that nearly every American I know — at least the ones without concierge medicine — has to deal with. It saps money, productivity and growth. As someone who had two children happily on the National Health Service in London, I say bring on socialised medicine. I’m behind anyone who’ll keep calling for it, no matter how politically unfeasible it seems at the moment.

Your feedback

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce

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