Note: This post was first published before any meetings between Nancy Pelosi and the Problem Solvers Caucus. The two sides have reportedly cut a deal on proposed rule changes.
I’m not the biggest fan of Nancy Pelosi personally. Even I, though, have to balk at the recent attempts to challenge her prospective leadership as Speaker of the House.
In particular, a no-vote of confidence from members of the Problem Solvers Caucus seems to be, well, a problem, or at least a distraction. The Problem Solvers Caucus is a bipartisan group of representatives that seeks to create cooperation among members of both major parties on key policy issues. In practice, it is a centrist committee.
For the purposes of this challenge’s to Pelosi’s authority, Jim Costa (CA), Vicente González (TX), Josh Gottheimer (NJ), Daniel Lipinski (IL), Stephanie Murphy (FL), Tom O’Halleran (AZ), Kurt Schrader (OR), Darren Soto (FL), and Tom Suozzi (NY) are the Democrats who are making their support contingent on the eventual Speaker’s acceptance of certain rule changes.
As Gottheimer, caucus co-chair, identified, these #BreaktheGridlock changes involve 1) legislation going to the House floor for debate and a vote when co-sponsored by at least three-fifths of Congress, 2) an amendment to legislation getting a debate and vote with at least 20 Democratic and 20 Republican co-sponsors, and 3) each member of Congress being allowed to introduce a bill for debate and vote on a committee he or she serves on once a congressional term.
In principle, these proposals designed to “break the gridlock” are worth considering in the name of procedural reform. The timing and very public nature of this threat to Pelosi’s leadership, however, as well as the take-it-or-leave attitude accompanying it, are concerning. What’s more, when considered alongside existing feelings that the Democratic Party needs to be taken in a “new direction,” the overall picture is one of party discord at a time when gains in the House should perhaps have the Dems thinking more harmoniously.
What’s additionally striking about this turn of events is that it has come at the behest of members of a caucus that tout their bipartisan credentials, not long after Pelosi herself vowed the House would move toward greater bipartisanship. Of course, this in itself drew criticism elsewhere. That Nancy Pelosi—damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.
Amid a spirit of partisan acrimony and congressional ineffectiveness, bipartisanship would seem to be exactly what we’d want or need. Everybody gets along, Congress actually gets meaningful things done—sounds good, right? The problem with bipartisanship as an ideal, however, is that it may be overrated, if not counterproductive.
Lew Blank, editor-in-chief of The Outsider, an independent, student-led online publication devoted to telling stories from outside the mainstream media bubble and the two-party binary, wrote in a detailed post last year (with helpful charts and graphs!) about how bipartisanship is, well, a myth. Firstly, there’s the matter of how the goal of bipartisanship tends to reduce matters to “debates” in the name of balance when there should be no room for debate. Blank starts his article thusly:
What America considers a debate is pretty messed up. Apparently, the existence of climate change is a “debate.” Allowing 33,000 Americans to die every year because they can’t afford health care is a “debate.” Continuing to arm ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria is a “debate.”
And yet, there’s one singular issue that seems to read “case closed” in the minds of millions of Americans, both red and blue: bipartisanship. Somehow, we have wound up in a world where saying “we should stop literally arming terrorists” is an opinion, but lauding the glories of bipartisan politics is unbiased and impartial.
On top of this, and more to the point, finding bipartisan legislative solutions tends to involve compromises that skew to the political right. As Blank characterizes this relationship, centrist Democrats often strive for policies that are “both (a) conservative enough to get Republican support, and (b) liberal enough to like.”
Viewing Obama-era policy directives through this lens, however, very few, if any, of them actually ticked both boxes. Either they were too conservative for liberals to like (e.g. extending the Bush tax cuts), too liberal for conservatives to pass or support after Obama was gone (e.g. the Paris Agreement), or neither very liberal nor supported by the GOP (e.g. military expansion that still saw Obama’s critics calling him “soft on terrorism”). The wrench in compromising and finding a middle ground, as many on the left might expect, is the uncompromising position Republicans take on issue after issue. In Blank’s words, their failure to “support anything with even a tinge of progressivism” means trying to bend over backward to appease them is a non-starter.
The true solution for Democrats, then, is to run to the left. Only from this position can they negotiate and get something close to what they really want. Per Blank:
This is compromise 101. If you get an offer of $50 for a painting and you ask for $60 instead, you may come away with a solid $55. If you go the “moderate” route and raise to $51 instead, you’re missing out on a potential four dollars.
What’s more, the statistics seem to bear out that running further to the left is the better strategy from an electoral perspective. How else to explain the enduring popularity of someone like Bernie Sanders and the lingering unpopularity of someone like Hillary Clinton? Of course, popularity and social media fervor don’t necessarily equate to votes cast. Then again, capitulation is not a very sexy approach to attracting voters, especially in the context of a general election, so why not go for the gusto?
Noting the refusal of Republicans to yield on policy matters in recent years, examples of bipartisan cooperation on the part of moderate Democrats might actually be more disconcerting than anything. As alluded to before, increased military spending has continued to be approved by Congress despite the cost of human life and despite the notion this focus on “defense” dwarfs the spending on domestic programs the GOP claims we can’t afford. The Dodd-Frank rollback aided and abetted by “Blue Dog” Dems like Gottheimer also jumps to mind as one of those points of accord between parties that should inspire fear more than confidence. Coming together is all well and good when we’re paving the road to another economic collapse.
For any number of reasons, therefore, bipartisanship may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Not the least of which is, if you ask this writer, that at 14 letters, the word bipartisanship is already too long.
As with “civility,” calls for bipartisanship are only as good as the individual or individuals making such an appeal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell caught flak for an op-ed for FOX News in which he asked whether the Democrats will work with Republicans, or “simply put partisan politics ahead of the country?” The irony was not lost on, er, pretty much anyone who knows McConnell. The Republican senator from Kentucky has been the proverbial poster child for partisan obstructionism in recent years. Accordingly, the prevailing response seemed to be “Merrick Garland” and some sort of invective or gesture not printable in this space. How’s that for bipartisanship, Mr. McConnell?
Nancy Pelosi, in her stated preference to work in a bipartisan manner within Congress and with President Trump, may have been similarly full of shit—at least outwardly. That is, she may genuinely wish to work in a partnership with Trump and the GOP, but knowing his and his party’s demands, this is functionally impossible. In this respect, Pelosi’s conviviality appears to be a show of rationality and goodwill in the face of a White House that lacks it so as to make her and her party look more reasonable. Even in jest, however, the sentiment is one whose sharing has the power to boil progressives’ blood.
I’m a resident of New Jersey’s ninth congressional district, but I’m a friend of a number of progressive-minded residents of the fifth where Josh Gottheimer calls home (by crossing from one town into the next, you’re entering into a different district). And I can tell you this much: while they’re plenty relieved to have someone like Gottheimer rather than someone like John McCann or his predecessor Scott Garrett in office, they’re disappointed in this display of brazenness from the co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus.
This isn’t the first time he’s disappointed them either, whether it’s because he voted with the GOP or because he has avoided making his stance clear so as to not risk a backlash. On one hand, there’s the political “reality” that he represents a district which has its clearly blue and red segments, so his bipartisan mentality may have its advantages.
On the other hand, as a Democratic supporter, it makes you wonder what lines someone like Gottheimer won’t cross. A number of these friends either voted to endorse him or campaigned for him in the midterms. Their reward? Little, if any, expressed gratitude and an overt attempt to undermine their party’s leadership. It should be no surprise that there’s already talk of wanting a primary challenge to Gottheimer’s seat in the House. For my part, I think all incumbents should be challenged as a matter of procedure and because it makes for better party platforms, but I sympathize with this desire.
Though it may go without saying at this point, there’s a financial aspect to this effort to contest Pelosi’s leadership heretofore unmentioned. As Ryan Grim of The Intercept reports, political/corporate consultant Mark Penn and No Labels, a bipartisan group funded by wealthy donors, are the driving force behind this revolt. Gottheimer and Penn, described by Grim as “one of the most toxic and notorious partisan warriors the Democratic Party has produced in the past three decades,” have a history together dating back to the Bill Clinton White House.
Members of no Labels, described by critics as “aggressively” centrist, have had an ax to grind against Pelosi for some time now. While they may have softened their position to make her Public Enemy #1—when in doubt, Bernie Sanders makes a convenient target—that ill will has evidently lingered.
There’s ample room for debate whether or not Nancy Pelosi, a seeming epitome of the “old guard” of Democratic Party leadership, is the right person for the role of Speaker of the House come January. Certainly, though, this attack on her from the Problem Solvers Caucus is one to be disparaged, as their insistence on “breaking the gridlock” purely as a function of their moderate ideology rings hollow.
In all, the Democrats’ commitment to bipartisanship without any show of good faith from the Republican Party is a questionable tack to take. It’s bad negotiating on top of poor electoral strategy, and its effectiveness as a tool to rally the base is similarly suspect. With the Dems needing a big win in 2020 to continue their momentum, that’s a problem.