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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 17: Ocasio-Cortez, Pelosi, and the Function of Safe Congressional Seats

Watching as the MSM had great sport with snippy-grams going back and forth between House Democratic leaders and their new super-star freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I tried to think through the deeper implications at New York:

Nancy Pelosi’s comments at the London School of Economics explaining the fruits of partisan gerrymandering made their way back across the pond with lightning speed, as reflected in the Washington Examiner:

“Pelosi explained to the London school audience that her district as well as the one represented by [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez vote Democrat no matter what.

“’This glass of water would win with a “D” next to it in those districts,’ Pelosi said. ‘But that’s not where we have to win elections.’”

Just to be clear, Pelosi’s right about the noncompetitive nature of her own San Francisco House district and AOC’s in New York: The former is the sixth-most Democratic district according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index (PVI), and the latter is the 31st-most Democratic. Hillary Clinton won 77 percent of the vote in AOC’s district, and Obama won 81 percent in 2012.

Presumably Pelosi thinks that despite her own safe seat, she can understand the plight of Democrats representing swing districts, but apparently has doubts about aggressively progressive members like AOC:

“’This is about winning,’ Pelosi told the London School of Economics and Political Science. ‘When we have to go into the districts we have to win, we have to cull that to what we have in common with those people.'”

Now Pelosi also had words of praise for her preternaturally talented young colleague. But you have to figure she wishes AOC, who has replaced Pelosi as the principal target of sexist conservative agitprop, had a slightly lower profile.

It’s unclear how any of this threatens Pelosi’s majority, except insofar as conservatives have sought to identify the entire Democratic Party with this one democratic socialist member’s views — which of course they are going to do in any event. Unless the entire House Democratic Caucus is expected to repeat the party line like cicadas, then there will always be members from districts where a more progressive viewpoint is viable than is politically sustainable everywhere. Their job is precisely to keep pressure on the leadership and the party to represent their constituents, too — not just the swing voters who have very nearly been hunted to extinction. And it doesn’t mean Democrats cannot accommodate candidates and members in more competitive districts with views more appropriate to local conditions. The big-tent principle should, however, work both ways.

If AOC begins threatening primary challenges to loyal Democrats from swing districts who happen to disagree with her ideology or policies, or suggesting Democrats take a dive in national elections if their candidates are too “centrist,” then that’s a clear violation of party discipline and Pelosi would be justified in rebuking her. That hasn’t happened, though. So long as gerrymandering and simple concentration of partisan voters produces safe House seats, however, their valuable function is to produce restless insurgents who stretch the imaginations of their elders rather than time-serving perpetual incumbents who go along to get along. In truth, both Pelosi, the precedent-shattering Speaker, and Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive comet, represent the silver lining of the generally rotten system of partisan gerrymandering: It gives leaders the opportunity to emerge from the crowd of election-fearing pols.

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