WASHINGTON — As they feud publicly, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is slowly learning a painful lesson about American politics at the hands of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: Power is about numbers.
Pelosi has them and Ocasio-Cortez does not.
The more Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., lashes out over the limits of her own influence, the more obvious those limits become and the more the imbalance tilts in the direction of Pelosi, D-Calif. After all, their fellow politicians are nothing if not hypersensitive to even the slightest shifts in the winds of power.
Now, they're freely dunking on Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the wake of her not-so-veiled allegation that Pelosi is discriminating against her clique, known as "The Squad," because of their lack of seniority, their gender and their skin color.
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Nancy Pelosi through the years
Nancy Pelosi through the years
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 8: File photo dated 08 May, 1996 shows US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, speaking during a Capitol Hill press conference in Washington, DC. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt (R, D-MO) is expected to announce 07 November, 2002 that he will not seek another term after the Republican opponents took both the House of Representatives and the Senate in mid-term elections 05 November. One of two Democrats vying to fill the spot is is Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi; the other is chairman of the Democratic caucus Martin Frost (D, TX). (Photo credit should read J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: US President Bill Clinton signs the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act Amendments of 1996 20 May at the White House in Washington DC. Standing behind Clinton are (L-R) Jeanne White, mother of Ryan, White House Aide Patsy Fleming, Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), Rep. Henry Waxman(D-CA), Rep. Nancy Pelosi(D-CA). (Photo credit should read CHUCK KENNEDY/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 25: HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS: Ranking member Nancy Pelosi ,D-Calif., during the House Appropriations,Foreign Operations subcommittee markup of FY 98 foreign operations appropriations. (Photo by Douglas Graham/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
SLUG:NA/BAILOUT DATE:9/26/08 WASHINGTON, DC CREDIT: DOMINIC BRACCO II From left, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) speak during a press conference about legislation for a bailout of the financial crisis on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26, 2008. (Photo by Dominic Bracco Ii/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush is applauded by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (R) and Vice President Dick Cheney (L) as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington 23 January 2007. AFP PHOTO/Larry Downing/Pool (Photo credit should read LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 10: WHIP RACE--Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., left, victor in the Democratic Whip race, talks to reporters and celebrates with supporting members after the Democratic caucus elected her to replace outgoing Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., who is running for governor of Michigan. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA,L) newly elected Democratic Minority Leader raises her hand with outgoing leader Dick Gephardt (D-MO) 14 November, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Pelosi's election marks the first time in the history of the US Congress that a woman will lead her party. AFP PHOTO MIKE THEILER (Photo credit should read MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 26: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the California delegate breakfast in Boston, Massachusetts on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 26, 2004. (Photo by Chris Kleponis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 02: STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS--House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., talk before President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
Congressman John Lewis, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Harry Belafonte, Jessie Jackson and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (Photo by Moses Robinson/WireImage)
WASHINGTON - JUNE 04: U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) addresses the 2008 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center June 4, 2008 in Washington, DC. Democratic U.S. presidential hopefuls Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) are scheduled to speak to the same event. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - MAY 22: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) holds her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol May 22, 2009 in Washington, DC. Pelosi turned the news conference into an opportunity to list what she and the Democratic House leadership considered their successes of the 111th Congress' first session. She took a handful of questions about her upcomming trip to China and her statements about the CIA. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 23: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, right, and Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, shakes hands while addressing the media before a meeting at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 23, 2009. Maliki pledged to mend sectarian divisions and fight corruption as he urged the international community to continue providing support to his nation. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC- Jan. 05: House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, accepts the gavel from outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as the 112th Congress convenes at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) works with staff before a vote on the House floor during a typically busy day on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Thursday, June 23, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES â DECEMBER 1: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., holds her weekly on camera news conference in the Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 22: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (L) and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi attends the Public Counsel's 2012 William O. Douglas Dinner at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 22, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images)
CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 05: House Minority Leader Sen. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) waves as she takes the stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC that will run through September 7, will nominate U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 14: House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks to the media as female House Democrats gather around during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol, on November 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. Leader Pelosi said that she has decided continue to lead the House Democrats and does not wish to retire at this time. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, bottom center, stands for a photograph with Democratic women of the House on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. 65 House Democratic women are part of the 114th Congress, the largest number of women in a party Caucus in the history of the Congress of the United States. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 07: (L-R) Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore, Apple's SVP of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, CEO of Apple Tim Cook, music producer Jimmy Iovine and Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi attend the Pre-GRAMMY Gala and Salute to Industry Icons honoring Martin Bandier at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 7, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - JULY 15: Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leave a meeting with House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center where Biden briefed members on the nuclear deal with Iran, July 15, 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JULY 14: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., introduces presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton to the press for her on the Iran nuclear deal following her meeting with House Democrats during their weekly caucus meeting in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, July 14, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi works with staff in her House Leadership office during a typically hectic legislative day on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Wednesday May 18, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (L) walks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after attending a meeting with the House Democratic Caucus on June 22, 2016 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 28: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 14: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), chats with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), during a memorial service to honor the late Rep. Mark Takai (D-HI), 49, who died from pancreatic cancer last July, at the US Capitol September 14, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 21: (L-R) Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) drive nails into a piece of lumber at the 'First Nail Ceremony' September 21, 2016 outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The ceremony marked the official launch of construction on the Inaugural platform where the next President of the United States will take the oath of office on Friday, January 20, 2017. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 22: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) answers questions during her weekly press conference at the U.S. Capitol September 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. Pelosi answered questions on a range of topics, including congressional negotiations on a new continuing resolution. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence, right, shakes hands with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, following a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. During their closed-door meeting, Pelosi expressed strong concerns about Trump's decision to name former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon to be his chief White House strategist, and asked him to reconsider the appointment. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg
"One thing we will not tolerate," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said, "is using the race question, otherwise known as the race card, on any member — especially a member who has an enviable record." If Pelosi had a problem on race, Norton added, "the whole world would know it."
Norton, 82, knows a thing or two about the obstacles young women of color face in society and politics: she attended segregated schools here, helped organize the 1963 civil rights march on Washington and served successively as the head of New York City's civil rights commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Ocasio-Cortez said Friday that it is "stupidly untrue" to say she played the "race card" against Pelosi.
She is surely right about one thing: Pelosi has made an example out of The Squad and helped them isolate themselves from the rest of the Democratic caucus as a party of four.
The reality is that The Squad's influence in American politics is more than four votes in the House — but less than its members seem to think.
In late June, as Pelosi was trying to put together a spending package to provide resources to the U.S. border with Mexico, she made concessions to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a much larger set of lawmakers that includes The Squad. Pelosi didn't just want to pass the bill; she wanted the entire Democratic caucus to vote for it so that she would have maximum possible leverage in negotiations with the more conservative Senate and White House.
Her negotiations with the progressive caucus proved fruitful — with four glaring exceptions. When it came time to vote, The Squad cast the only Democratic votes against the bill. That infuriated Pelosi, but it also gave her an opening to demonstrate to the rest of the caucus that Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort are an island unto themselves within the party.
When Pelosi subsequently went ahead and put the Senate's version of the bill on the floor — against the wishes of progressives — it was harder to argue with the logic that she couldn't fully trust that votes would materialize if she tried to amend it first.
In other words: the argument was progressives had only The Squad to blame for the failure to get a more liberal border bill. Whether that's true or not, Ocasio-Cortez and her friends certainly didn't make the case for themselves as team players with their votes against the original version.
At the same time, Pelosi began publicly calling them out for stirring up dissent on social media but failing to turn online activism into voting power in Congress.
Then, in a closed-door caucus meeting this past week, when Pelosi admonished lawmakers not to use social media to attack each other, there wasn't any question whom she was targeting: in a tweet just days earlier, Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff had accused modern Southern Democrats of being like segregationists of old. "Our caucus is very upset about some of the comments that have come from the staffs," Pelosi told reporters as she left the meeting Wednesday.
In the past, separately and collectively, The Squad has gone to battle with fellow Democrats on political issues from primary elections to the influence of pro-Israel donors in American politics, as well as administrative matters such as the composition of House committees and policy issues like the situation on the border. To this point, these four lawmakers have created infinitely more headlines and headaches for the Democrats than they have legislative victories.
Ocasio-Cortez took particular umbrage at Pelosi's string of recent reprimands.
"When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm's distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood," Ocasio-Cortez said this week in an interview with The Washington Post. "But the persistent singling out ... it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful ... the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color."
The back-and-forth between the high-profile lawmakers has touched off a firestorm within the Democratic caucus that pulls at virtually every thread of intersectionality, but the most commonly expressed sentiment is that Ocasio-Cortez has crossed a lot of lines with a lot of lawmakers and has not shown her colleagues, including Pelosi, the kind of respect that she demands for herself.
As for the question of whether Pelosi is discriminating against The Squad on the basis of gender, seniority and skin color, most Democrats find that absurd.
"We all have a framework through which we see life and my framework is not one that is defined by my gender, race or background, and so I can't relate to what has been said," Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a second-term Vietnamese American leader of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "I will say that my interactions with the speaker, when we disagree or if we agree, have always been professional, and I think that lack of professionalism [on the part of Ocasio-Cortez] is what we are seeing here."
Murphy, who often has clashed with Pelosi on policy and strategy, has found success in speaking the speaker's language — by bringing votes along with her to force negotiations on particular points of disagreement and by trying to find solutions rather than simply blocking legislation. She explained the tension between Pelosi and The Squad in those terms.
"I think it's probably natural friction that's due to the speaker, whose primary goal is to retain the majority and ride herd over a very diverse caucus, and the fact of the matter is not all of our colleagues are interested in legislating collaboratively and some of them may not be interested in legislating," she said.
The tension between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez has existed since before the latter was even sworn in, as they battled over a select committee on climate change. It was only a matter of time before it boiled over. But Pelosi, whose power derives from her ability to collect and count votes, didn't strike until the numbers were most clearly in her favor.
When she did, there were 227 Democrats in her camp and four in Ocasio-Cortez's. That's the kind of math lesson that should be hard to forget.