If politics were a high school movie, Republicans would be the jocks and mean girls locking hapless freshmen inside their lockers and threatening to call in their rich parents if the teachers complain – plus the broke kids who are always willing to strong-arm homework for them from the nerds.
Democrats would be the student council geeks, vainly pleading with the jocks to be fair (and join student government!) And the new crop of purist “progressives” would be the emo girl who invariably throws her best friend under the bus for a chance at getting the evil cheerleaders to like her and the smarmiest guy on the football team to take her to prom. (To fill out the analogy, independents would be the upperclassmen who smoke a lot of cigarettes and only occasionally go to class, and non-voters are the kids inside the lockers.)
In the wake of four red state special election losses and her party defaulting to its usual panic mode, Nancy Pelosi is playing the role of the spurned best friend.
Pelosi made history as the first woman speaker of the House in 2006 and went on to distinguish herself as the most effective and productive speaker since Sam Rayburn led the congress that passed the civil rights and voting rights acts, Medicare and Medicaid. Yet today, many liberals, some of whom are even Democrats, want her to disappear.
In the wake of John Ossoff’s narrow loss to Karen Handel in the run to replace HHS secretary Tom Price, a handful of these change agents led by a Tim Ryan, a youngish Ohio congressman who wants the House minority leader’s job for himself, raced for the Klieg lights to declare with gravely furrowed brows that it’s time for Pelosi to go. You see, Republicans ran ads taunting her in the Georgia special, and that means she was to blame for Ossoff’s fate.
This Democratic version of the right’s 2010 “fire Pelosi” brigades argues that the party is carrying the designer-clad Californian on their backs like a well coiffed hunchback, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t hide her from the bad people. Republicans need only point and jeer at the hump in TV commercials and all is lost. There is literally no way to reverse the toxic effects of Pelosi’s visage on helpless would-be swing voters. No campaign can possibly survive her existence.
Never mind that Pelosi runs neither the Democratic National Committee (that would be a man named Tom Perez) nor the DCCC (bet you can’t tell me who heads that, but yeah, it’s a dude), both organs whose function, along with the DSCC, is to help Democrats win elections, including countering negative messaging from the other side. The minority leader’s job, on the other hand, is to organize the House caucus to try and pass bills or stop them, and to fundraise for members when they need money for re-election, two things Pelosi does exceptionally well. And yet somehow, Pelosi, unique to every person who’s ever held the job of House Minority Leader, is left holding the bag for every election that goes wrong in America, simply because Republicans chose her as their target.
Pelosi didn’t get the credit, oddly enough, when Democrats took back the House in 2006 – in a wave that would ultimately make her speaker. The conventional wisdom at that time was that the victory belonged to a man named Rahm Emanuel, who headed the DCCC – a job Pelosi, who held the same job she holds now, tapped him for. Her power to swing elections has been randomly applied in presidential races as well. Barack Obama managed to become president with the dreaded Pelosi holding the speaker’s gavel in 2008 and re-elected with her serving again as minority leader in 2012.
Republicans did take back the House in 2010 largely by turning Pelosi into a piñata. The strategy is credited to then-RNC chairman Michael Steele and involved an orgy of Pelosi bashing that tagged the Democratic Party with her “San Francisco values,” a thinly veiled code for gay tolerance and squishy liberal elitism that let the party avoid direct hits on the first black president. Still, despite an ad campaign that literally depicted her leading an army of zombies in an animal sacrifice ritual and an actual "fire Pelosi" bus tour, most Americans couldn’t pick the congresswoman out of a two-person lineup. Few have any idea what she actually does. The anti-Pelosi campaign worked because it played on certain voters’ eagerness to demonize a woman of a certain age and level of ambition, just as birtherism worked on those who are freaked out by a black man with a foreign sounding name. But it also worked because Democrats didn’t bother fighting back (in fairness, House and Senate members were too busy crashing into each other while fleeing the healthcare bill they’d passed and pretending they’d never heard of Barack Obama.) Now, some on the left have actually joined the other side, essentially conceding the notion that Pelosi, in her very being, represents something awful. They too, apparently, disdain "San Francisco values."
And while we’re talking 2010, that was the year many who share the ideological leanings of the Dump Pelosi Brigades vowed to stay home to punish Obama for failing to deliver every cherry on the progressive sundae in a single year. Many of them made good on that threat, and their abstention had far more to do with the Democrats’ Census year shellacking than the congresswoman from California.
In the end, the message anti-Pelosi liberals are sending is both dangerous and incoherent. It’s dangerous because it suggests that any Democrat who Republicans choose to fixate on will be thrown overboard by so-called “progressives” in the name of appeasing white working class voters. Massachusetts liberal Elizabeth Warren and California liberal Kamala Harris might want to watch their backs. If the next GOP ad blitz features one of them, or Maxine Waters, I suppose they’ll be the next ladies asked to go into hiding so the party can rebrand with a much more marketable rust belt white guy. Democratic women, Hillary Clinton supporters and voters of color see you, Change Agents, and hear your “rally ‘round a man” message loud and clear.
The incoherence, as Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert has pointed out, is that the cries for Pelosi to step aside for a “more progressive leader” bely the fact that Pelosi is a target precisely because she’s a liberal from San Francisco. Are the anti-Pelosi warriors arguing that Ryan, from an Ohio district that Hillary Clinton narrowly won that’s on the GOP’s high value target list for 2018, is somehow more progressive? And if he is, wouldn’t that make him an even more problematic face for a party that wants to play in Peoria?
When you dismiss those arguments what you’re left with is the idea that Pelosi must step aside for a younger face. Oh ok. I wonder how that message might wash if it were applied to Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, both of whom are in their 70s, and have been in Washington as long as Pelosi has. Democratic senior women, who vote with a vehement regularity, might want to take note.
The Fire Pelosi Brigades seem to miss the fact that her experience and effectiveness in the House are precisely why she’s a GOP target. Republicans would love to see her replaced with someone who is owed no favors in the House, can’t whip a vote and is not a prolific fundraiser (Republicans tried that gambit with John Boehner and wound up with Paul Ryan). Those who are demanding a new leader should at least explain how their pick would better command the House minority and steer it toward legislative victories than the woman who almost single-handedly forced Obamacare through the unruly chamber. Do they suppose that if both the speaker and the minority leader had the same surname and demographics, GOPers might be tricked into switching sides?
Should Democrats do something about the fact that their congressional leadership is composed of legacy players who’ve been climbing the ladder for decades? Of course. But the House and Senate leaders are not the party’s sole standard bearers, nor should they be. Pelosi is a leader in the party but not THE leader. Nor has she ever claimed to be. But her “San Francisco values” – fairness, equality, and the right to not die because you’re too poor to buy health insurance – should be easily defensible for something calling itself the Democratic Party, as should the idea of a woman becoming the House leader because she happens to be the most qualified.
The Pelosi attacks showcase the worst aspects of the Democratic Party, whose typical response to losing even long shot elections is immediate panic and frantic searches for ways to appease the other side. They insist on seeing Republican voters as helpless victims of right wing hypnosis that convinces them that Pelosi may be hiding under the bed with a syringe filled with rainbows, rather than what they are: people who prefer Republican policies. (Democrats have found success in the past by adopting Republican ideas: see Bill Clinton, 1992. But you eventually pay for that with the cynicism of younger voters who see those compromises as an unacceptable sellout.)
Republicans don’t vote Republican because of Nancy Pelosi. They vote Republican because they are Republicans. Pelosi may trigger their obtuse fantasies of looming female hegemony; a world with too much multiculturalism and a hedonistic, lecturing Hollywood that insists on indoctrinating their kids to believe in climate change and a right to healthcare, but if she were to vanish into thin air tomorrow, Republicans would just find another symbol for those same emotionally threatening ideas.
Even if the Fire Pelosi brigades were to succeed, what makes them think the Tweeter in Chief and his no-goody mob wouldn’t simply laugh in Democrats’ faces and brag that they forced the weak-kneed party to dump its Republican-declared leader? Do the anti-Pelosi progressives honestly believe Republicans would stop attacking Democratic Party values if she went away, rather than choosing a new nemesis?
Meanwhile, if the GOP can defend cheaters, beaters, white nationalists, Islamophobes, Vladimir Putin and a guy who literally boasted on tape about grabbing women’s vaginas, would is it so hard for Democrats to stand up for a woman whose great crime, apparently, is being a liberal from California who believes what Democrats supposedly believe?
Democrats don’t have a Nancy Pelosi problem. They have a fight problem, and a vision problem. They’ve lost touch with the art of mobilizing their own base and adding non-voters to it and then protecting and defending their right to vote. They’ve forgotten how to stay on the battlefield and defend their own and the values that make them Democrats.
A party that knew who it was, that fought like hell and dared anyone to come for its people might actually grow and win, and maybe even pick up a few converts. A wiser party would stop pining for “persuadable” voters in GOP districts and get busy defending its values. A savvier party would refocus attention on the threats to healthcare, national sovereignty and decency coming from the White House and the cruel Republican congress. A more prepared party would start fielding and promoting new national stars rather than dragging their OGs to appease the party of Trump.
A party that wanted to win would quit pleading with the jocks and open those locker doors themselves.