Nancy Pelosi Is Worth the Trouble
Three months ago, Democrats seemed ready to send Nancy Pelosi packing. Jon Ossoff had just come up short in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District special election, after a steady flow of Republican ads featuring Pelosi’s visage, including one where San Francisco hippies sporting “Pelosi-Ossoff” gear “thank” Georgia for “giving us” another congressman. Shudders ran through the House Democratic caucus that similar ads were destined for their districts in the fall of 2018.
“I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” fumed Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas). Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) was equally blunt. “There comes a time when every leader has to say … ‘It’s time for me to step aside.’ And I wish that that would happen right now,” she said. Suddenly, the woman the broke the House glass ceiling was a political liability.
There is no talk of a Democratic palace coup today. Last week, Pelosi, along with her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, clinched a deal with President Trump to fund the government and lift the debt limit for three months.
Many have commented on how Trump sandbagged Republican congressional leaders who wanted an 18-month debt limit extension to deprive Democrats of opportunities to extract concessions before the next election. But also of note is the fact that two weeks prior, Trump himself was threatening a government shutdown if Congress didn’t include border wall spending. Yet somehow Pelosi and Schumer cajoled Trump into keeping the government open without a penny for the wall.
Pelosi wasn’t done. She personally asked Trump to give a public assurance that the DREAMers – undocumented immigrants who came to America as children -- would not be deported during the next six months while Congress works on a replacement to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And Trump obliged.
How were Democrats able to secure such a one-sided deal? Simple: The Republican congressional caucus is divided and the Democratic caucus is not. Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan can’t deliver all their party’s votes. Pelosi and Schumer can.
According to the Washington Post, Pelosi made that clear in the bipartisan Oval Office meeting where the deal was struck, telling her Republican counterparts: “You have the votes, no discussion necessary. You don’t have the votes, three months.”
This is why Pelosi remains in her post. She knows how to deliver votes.
Those Democrats who sometimes wish she’d go away fear she presents a public face of a sharp-edged San Francisco liberal that’s irksome to Middle America. But the job of House minority leader, or House speaker, is not to be the public face of the party. It’s to deliver votes.
And in that role, she is less a San Francisco liberal than a ruthless Baltimore machine pol in the mold of her father, former Mayor Thomas “Big Tommy” D'Alesandro. A 2006 Washington Post profile recounted, “She grew up stuffing envelopes for her dad. She grew up watching how the political game was played. She saw how favors were handed out, how chits were called in.”
When Pelosi first became speaker at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, she played the game as it was meant to be played. She immediately ruled impeachment “off the table” and secured the first minimum wage increase in a decade by attaching it to a measure that also funded what Democrats loathed the most – the Iraq War. In the Obama administration, she first cleared a health care bill that included a “public option” for insurance demanded by the left, but kept her caucus in line when Senate resistance compelled her to drop it.
Even last week’s deal to keep the government open and raise the debt limit required Pelosi to fend off flak from the left, because she and Schumer didn’t insist on adding to the must-pass bill a legislative remedy for Trump’s planned termination of DACA. Still, not a single Democrat voted no. Ryan and McConnell, who have struggled to herd their cats all year, can only watch in awe and wonder how she does it.
As Pelosi is 77 years old and has led her caucus for 14 years, the next generation of Democratic leaders are anxious to ascend. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank took up their cause last November. “Democrats would benefit from some fresh blood to take on Donald Trump … and to revive enthusiasm among millennials,” he argued, while lamenting “Pelosi’s iron grip over the caucus.”
But the fact that Pelosi has an iron grip over her caucus means she is doing her job well. To force her into retirement means risking giving the reins to someone who doesn’t command the same loyalty and wouldn’t be able to maximize Democratic negotiating leverage.
The assumption that the Pelosi hurts Democrats’ chances because Republicans can hold her up as the personification of the hated coastal liberal doesn’t account for the hit job the conservatives did on Tom Daschle, who served as Senate majority leader for part of the Bush administration.
The mild-mannered South Dakotan was the farthest thing from a coastal liberal. Yet in 2002, ads in several Senate races depicted Daschle – along with then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy – as bobblehead dolls, and tagged Democratic Senate candidates as obstructionist “Daschle Democrats.” The ads contributed to four Democratic defeats. And by 2004, Daschle had been pilloried nationally for so long he lost his own re-election, the first defeat for a Senate party leader in 52 years.
The lesson is that it doesn’t matter who is in a Democratic leadership post, or where they come from. That person will be subject to Republican caricature. Removing Pelosi doesn’t protect Democrats from attack on the campaign trail, while it could weaken the Democrats’ ability to shape the congressional agenda.
There are times when retirement pressure is justified – for example, the liberal wing of the Supreme Court would have been in stronger shape if Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer stepped down when Democrats controlled the Senate. But that was because of the unique nature of the Supreme Court’s lifetime tenure. The argument that they shouldn’t be forced out because of their advanced ages didn’t wash. There was inherent value in having a younger liberal vote in their stead, regardless of the relative sharpness of the replacements’ pens.
In the case of Pelosi, her age is largely irrelevant. So long as she’s doing the job, it makes sense for her to do the job. Of course, one or more successors should be groomed because her eventual departure is inevitable. But rushing her out the door on the flimsy hope that it will improve the Democrats’ electoral odds would have been a misguided panic move.
Back in June, Pelosi sounded cocky when she shot back to her critics, “I think I’m worth the trouble” because “I am a master legislator.” Last week, she backed up her words.