House Republicans have spent the last decade demonizing Nancy Pelosi. What they should have been doing is learning from her.
In the House, the dichotomy between her leadership and Republicans’ couldn’t be starker. Republican leadership effectively lost control of their intractable caucus; Pelosi never allowed that to happen.
That’s because, unlike just about any Republican speaker in recent memory, Pelosi knows how to keep her party’s base in line (even today, as she seeks the speakership, Pelosi mocks the idea that Democrats should impeach Trump or abolish ICE) and provide cover for her moderate members in tight election battles.
Whereas Donald Trump couldn’t stand it when vulnerable House Republicans sought to distance themselves from him (see his attacks on Barbara Comstock, Mia Love, and Carlos Curbelo), Pelosi had the opposite reaction in similar situations. As Robert Draper writes in The New York Times Magazine, back in 2010 in the wake of the Obamacare vote, Pelosi “…made clear to her caucus members that they should do whatever it took to win, even if it meant publicly distancing themselves from her.”
You don’t have to like her politics to admire her thick skin and leadership skills.
As speaker, Pelosi was able to negotiate in good faith on behalf of her caucus, an advantage that Republican leaders have not always had). “If you turn around and your troops aren’t with you, you’ve obviously lost your bargaining strength,” Chris Van Hollen told Robert Draper. “So one of the things that’s really set Nancy Pelosi apart is her uncanny ability to unite all the different Democratic coalitions around a negotiating position. And whether it was Bush or Boehner or Ryan, they never doubted that she had the votes to back up her position.”
Part of what makes Pelosi appealing to this conservative is that she has exhibited many traits that conservatives generally admire, including hard work and tenacity. One gets the sense that she wasn’t handed anything.
Although the Democratic Party machinery has quotas and structures that promote diversity, when Draper asked Pelosi “whether Democratic leaders had ever encouraged her to rise in the ranks,” she scoffed. “‘They didn’t ever invite me to a meeting,’ she said. ‘The only time I was ever in the Democratic speaker’s office was when I became speaker.’”
Pelosi has been demonstrably effective, though, on top of being the first female speaker of the House. The only compelling argument for getting rid of her (after having won back the House) seems to boil down to ageism.
There’s a sense that it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation. Here, again, the traditional conservative who values wisdom and experience would think that Pelosi’s experience is an argument for retaining her, not an argument to replace her.
Perhaps there’s an argument for a fresh face when you’re talking about the White House. But who said congressional leaders were supposed to have mass appeal?
As the 21st century incentivizes wholesale politics and soaring rhetoric (never a Pelosi strong suit), it’s probably not surprising that Congress has lost stature and that the new breed of pols (focused on TV hits and social media fame) are less successful at governing.
The daughter of Italian-American Baltimore Mayor Tom D’Alessandro, Pelosi cut her teeth on old-school machine politics. Despite her pedigree, her career is the story of a meritocratic triumph where cunning and hard work were rewarded.
I know Republicans love to tear her down as a San Francisco liberal. She may be more polarizing than some, but any effective politician will be demonized. As far as I can tell, this demonization is largely a compliment.
In many ways, Pelosi is a throwback to the leadership qualities and values that conservatives once admired in the days when Ronald Reagan worked across the aisle with an old big-city pol named Tip O’Neill. However, times have changed. Instead of negotiating with The Gipper, she’ll be negotiating with Jell-O. Instead of Ron and Nancy, it’s more like Sid and Nancy.
Still, Democrats should be happy to have her.
This is not some sort of reverse psychology. I am not trying to boost Pelosi because I secretly believe she’s a perfect foil. Although she’s the Democrat Republicans love to hate, if you slipped most conservatives some sodium pentothal and asked whether they would trade Pelosi for Ryan (or Boehner), the vast majority would make that deal. (If you believe Donald Trump’s unfiltered rhetoric is the GOP’s id, then take his kind words about Pelosi at face value.)
Who knows, maybe Kevin McCarthy will emerge as the next Sam Rayburn. I’m not holding my breath. It seems more likely he will be a rubber stamp for Donald Trump. While Democrats are contemplating whether to make Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House, Republicans would be lucky to have someone in the House half as tough.
So how about a trade? Pelosi for McCarthy (and a player to be named later)? I didn’t think so.