What could possibly go wrong when you go all lovey-dovey on an insurrectionist 30 days after an attempted coup? Photo credit: Office of GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy / Wikimedia Commons
Like hundreds of thousands of Instagram users, I can easily be hypnotized by silly dog reels. One of my favorite genres is when a dog stretches into a swimming pool to get a tennis ball. A child-like voice in the background sings: “And nothing can go wrong” (dog falls into swimming pool) “OH NO! It went wrong!”
Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-22) is all those dogs.
You know the emerging story: after nurturing the vipers of election denialism, conspiracism, and violence in the GOP after the Trump-led insurrection on January 6, 2020, McCarthy’s chickens have come home to roost. The midterms were a wash for the Republican Party, delivering a fragile majority that allowed a few right-wing crazies in his party to take him—and the whole Congress—hostage. No matter what McCarthy promised the 20 dissenters, it was never enough.
Why? They don’t trust him.
Can you honestly say that they are wrong? No, you can’t. And even the hardliners’ godhead, Donald J. Trump, could not persuade the 20 to vote yes—probably because they don’t trust him. And who detects a liar better than a pack of liars?
Meanwhile, Democrats got to go on television and say: Gee, all I want to do is go to work for the people. And: Gee! If they can’t elect a speaker, what else can’t they do? Hello, 2024! I feel so ready.
But that isn’t the point. Instead, I am interested in another aspect of what is essentially a constitutional crisis since Congress could not function until there was a Speaker. And that is: What did former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA-11) bequeath to Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8), now Minority Leader?
Pelosi’s most obvious legacy was the Democrats’ ironclad discipline on the floor of the House and in the media. On the floor, that discipline consisted of voting repeatedly and in a bloc for Jeffries, who—because of the number of GOP dissenters—consistently wins a plurality, although not a majority, of the votes cast. In the media, as I indicated above, it meant staying on message and not saying or doing any fool thing that would go viral on Twitter. We also did not see personal attacks from Democrats—just a feigned quizzicalness, a political party waiting for an opening. The difference was clear: Democrats govern, and Republicans invest in sideshows.
It’s as if all Democrats have become Nancy Pelosi: assassins with a smile and four-inch heels.
Second, the Democrats were, in essence, trolling McCarthy. But they also knew what Lauren Boebert (for example) does not: to be effective, a troll can never be just a troll. While evidence that either centrist or radical Republicans would throw a Molotov cocktail and switch their votes to “present” was thin, had McCarthy been driven from the Speakership he wanted so badly, Democrats would have helped to do it by dangling a terrifying specter: a Democratic Speaker setting House rules for the Republican majority.
This threat, in turn, helped to deliver another hard lesson to all Republicans who still have a shred of moderation in them, which is that they have erred badly by not expelling the hard right from their party. Instead, by acquiescing in the expulsion of a small faction that openly condemned the Trump-led insurrection on January 6, 2020, and collaborating in the political assassination of Liz Cheney (who could have helped them here), they are now doomed as a functioning party for the next two years.
Now, the question is not whether the defenestration of the GOP will happen but whether it will take 23 months. Are you listening, George Santos?
But perhaps the most important legacy Jeffries inherited from Pelosi, and must nurture, is a House minority that is genuinely ideologically diverse but knows how to compromise and cooperate. In psychology, this is called “good group dynamics,” but it takes work. Perhaps the most important work that Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership did in the past four years has been to encourage and mentor a dynamic group of young Progressives, many of whom are women, people of color, and queer. Although they arrived in the House as disruptors, instead of ceding power to them as individuals or even as a “squad,” Pelosi integrated these young legislators into the policymaking apparatus and taught them what it means to be part of a powerful coalition.
In practical terms, accommodating people with good ideas that are out of the mainstream (or as-yet unattainable in a party that needs every Democratic vote to pass legislation) is the Mick Jagger Theory of Congress. You know what I mean: You can’t always get what you want—but if you try sometimes, you just might find—you get what you need.
Remember these words when fresh rounds of votes are cast in the coming weeks. Pundits will tie themselves in knots about how GOP radicals are “moving the goalposts,” and they will try to untangle the mystery of what these extremists “want.” But in politics, you can’t want anything outside the context of what is possible. Nancy Pelosi’s greatest strength as a liberal was in her mastery of the possible while at the same time accommodating dissenters, idealists, and change-makers to this fact of life. This is what she taught her caucus.
And it shows.
No one can have everything they want—not in life, and certainly not in politics. But everyone can have something they want in return for being a team player. Nowhere was Pelosi-ism better exemplified than in December 2021 when, as Joe Biden’s signature legislation, Build Back Better, was swinging in the breeze and Pelosi was looking at splitting the package, two things happened.
Thing One was that five members of the Progressive Caucus came out swinging with a resounding “Hell, no.” As Ryan Grim and Sarah Sirota reported on December 20, 2021, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the most explicit: “This is bullshit,” she snapped.
Yet no member of the Democratic leadership went on MSNBC to deride these members elected by their constituents to be progressive and defend progressive ideas. This made room for Thing Two: the leader of the Progressive Caucus, led by Pramila Jayapal (WA-17), agreed to break apart Build Back Better to get part of it passed, which not only brought enough moderate Republicans on board to pass the first package but also put pressure on West Virginia’s rogue Democrat Joe Manchin to vote for the bill in the Senate. As Jayapal told The Intercept,
“I want to be very clear that I believe it was our insistence on holding the line that got Senator Manchin to commit to a framework negotiated by the president that I don’t think Senator Manchin ever wanted to do in the first place,” Jayapal said. “I believe we were able to put him in a box with that framework where he would either have to uphold his commitment to the president or—and I do believe the president when he said to us and to me personally that he got a commitment from Senator Manchin—or he’d have to go back on his word.”
The job of House progressives, she said, was to get both bills through the House and get a commitment from Manchin, beyond which the responsibility lay with the president to finish it. “We held the line not just once, but twice, and even a third time for a very long day at the end to insist that we get what we needed to pass both bills through the House and pass both bills through the House we did,” she said.
Here’s the line to pay attention to: “The job of House progressives, she said, was to get both bills through the House and get a commitment from Manchin, beyond which the responsibility lay with the president to finish it.” In other words, Pelosi wanted a bill, and so did the Progressive caucus. Everyone got something they wanted by allowing them to vote no, without any penalty. And arguably, progressives got two things they wanted: legislation that spoke to the economic issues their constituents elected them to address and the opportunity to stick to their principles and say it wasn’t enough.
Oh yes, and my guess is that if we dug into the bill, we would find a few things that those Republican “yes” votes got too.
This leads me back to my observation about Nancy Pelosi’s legacy: she has left behind a caucus where everyone knows what their job is. It’s fine to do your job differently. It’s fine to compromise, and it is fine to let the most radical elements of your party lead from time to time. What isn’t fine? To not know what your job is.
At the most basic level, Kevin McCarthy’s extremist Republicans don’t know their jobs because McCarthy doesn’t know his job—that the most important thing a Leader can do is lead. Instead of leading, he followed Trump. He followed Hannity. He followed Tucker. He followed, followed, followed.
And now McCarthy, and the entire Republican Party, are paying the piper.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This article first appeared in slightly different form on her Substack, Political Junkie.