OPINION — In the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, you could already see a tea party redux setting itself up for the Democrats in the same the way the original tea party movement had swept the Republicans into power in 2011.
There was the grassroots anger fueling the insurrection. The out-of-nowhere political superstars already gaining traction. And the out-of-power party establishment in Washington looking at the energy coming into their party as their ticket to rise to the majority. But once the tea partiers got to D.C., Republicans’ visions of power didn’t go as planned.
The new reinforcements they thought were there to fight against Democrats were just as angry at Speaker John Boehner and his brand of leather-tipped power brokerage. Instead of getting elected and falling in line, the new members arrived in the House hell-bent on burning it down, no matter which party occupied the speaker’s office. They wanted change, no matter which party was running the town.
Weren’t Democrats equally worried, I wondered, that they would suffer the same fate in 2019? Would the incoming freshmen — younger, less experienced, more willing to buck traditions — upend Democratic House leaders’ plans from the left in the same way tea partiers sandbagged Boehner from the right?
Nothing to worry about, veteran Democrats told me in October. While Boehner had 80-plus new Republicans to manage in 2011, Democrats were likely to get half the number of new faces. And of the new recruits coming in 2019, Democrats knew most of their majority-makers would come from the so-called Red to Blue swing districts that Democrats had targeted to flip and went to moderate Democrats over Republicans in November.
Instead of managing a generational family feud as Boehner had to do, one veteran Democrat told me the heavy lift would be “expectation management” for the new members. In other words, explain to freshmen that while their passion was appreciated, they shouldn’t look for too much change too soon with a Republican Senate and White House to slow their progress.
But a little more than two months into the new regime, the confidence that “expectations” could be managed has fallen away. Instead of doing a victory lap to celebrate last week’s passage of HR 1, Democrats’ signature anticorruption legislation, House leadership was feverishly writing and rewording a resolution against hate speech after remarks by Rep. Ilhan Omar were condemned as anti-Semitic, even by some in her own party.
Ultimately, Pelosi held her Democrats together on the anti-hate vote, while 23 Republicans voted against it, but the episode showed how different the reality of the majority has been for Democrats from what they expected.
Pelosi focuses on HR1 and the anti-Semitism resolution in weekly presser
While it’s true that a majority of the new Democrats in the House are moderates, the energy, ideas and oxygen of the freshman class is clearly coming from the exact opposite side of the party. From Omar to Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, the quartet of progressive women may make up one-tenth of the new seats, but they seem to reflect 99 percent of the restless grassroots energy the party needs to win going forward.
For all of Pelosi’s instincts for unity, discretion and discipline, these freshmen seem to feed off the opposite. Where Pelosi builds, they disrupt. Where she smoothes edges, they carve them, with the act of fighting against Washington almost as important as what they’re fighting for or against.
At a standing-room only event at SXSW last week, AOC drew larger crowds and more applause than any of the 2020 candidates who showed up to the liberal confab. And instead of watering down her criticism of moderates, even in her own party, she laid them bare. “Moderate is not a stance. It’s just an attitude toward life of, like, ‘meh,’” she said. “The greatest things we have ever accomplished as a society have been ambitious acts of vision. The ‘meh’ is worshipped now. For what?”
Like AOC, Omar says she’s not seeking popularity or approval; in fact, she’s OK with the opposite. “I am certainly not looking to be comfortable, and I don’t want everyone necessarily to feel comfortable around me,” she told Tim Alberta of Politico Magazine. “I think really the most exciting things happen when people are extremely uncomfortable.”
And that’s a tough spot for a party to find itself in, with some of its highest-profile and prolifically quotable members not really giving a damn what anyone in Washington thinks of them. It’s the trait that made the tea party caucus almost ungovernable for Boehner and, later, for Paul Ryan. And it’s a quality that Omar told Alberta she and other progressives admire in that movement. “A lot of us are not that much different in our eagerness to want to come here and fight for our constituents, fight for the American ideals we believe in,” she said.
The question for Democrats going forward is how far to bend toward the AOC’s and Omars and Tlaibs of the party to win over grassroots energy, without breaking up the Democratic coalition, which, yes, includes moderates. Will it be enough for leaders to endorse the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All” or will they need a vote? Will the freshmen continue to speak out, even if it hurts the party, if they think it helps their cause? Will they mount primary challenges to fellow Democrats if their expectations are not only not managed, but not met?
In 2011, over tea partiers’ loud objections, Republicans voted for a series of measures, including debt ceiling increases and plus-ups in federal spending, that the grassroots had railed against months before. Tea party activists told me then that they felt GOP leaders “kind of see us as kind of a fly buzzing around their ear right now,” merely acknowledging them, but then ultimately shooing them away. They wanted more.
And so do progressives now.
In the Q&A portion of her appearance at SXSW last week, Ocasio-Cortez was asked about her advice for younger voters. “Stop trying to navigate systems of power and start building your own party,” she said. It’s great advice for activists, but bad news for Democrats in Washington.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.