Nancy Pelosi: the Democratic Party’s Undisputed Leader

For most of the last campaign cycle, Republican ad-makers treated then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi like a piñata.

They used her name and image in thousands of GOP television spots around the country, trying to turn the midterm election into a referendum on her liberalism and “San Francisco values.” That effort failed, of course, because midterms are never about the minority party’s congressional leadership, at least not when the president is someone as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump.

But Pelosi, who turns 79 today, didn’t merely survive the GOP attacks. She has prospered and continues to be the glue that holds the Democratic Party together, proving again and again that those of us who believed last summer that her party would be better off with new leadership were completely wrong.

In fact, Pelosi may be the only individual now able to keep her party together and keep Trump back on his heels. Pelosi — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor Rep. Ilhan Omar — remains the leader of the Democratic Party, no matter how often Republicans and their allies try to paint the Democrats as a lunatic band of socialists preparing to ban cows and air travel.

Since last year’s election, Pelosi has shown her gifts as a leader, vote-counter and strategist. She succeeded in winning another term as speaker and, so far, has kept a more fractured party together.

Last August, almost three months before the midterms, The New Republic published a piece titled “The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms.”

The focus of that piece and others was the substantial number of Democratic House hopefuls who insisted that they could not and would not support Pelosi for speaker.

And yet, she successfully maneuvered through the mini-revolt of newly elected pragmatists from suburban, swing districts and outspoken progressives who wanted fresh leadership and were impatient for change.

Yes, she had to make a handful of deals to keep the speakership, including agreeing to only four more years in the position. But making deals is nothing new for Pelosi.

Only a few weeks later, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave Trump enough rope to allow him to hang himself (politically, that is) when the government shutdown and the president shouldered most of the blame.

Between two wings

How was Pelosi able to survive those very different challenges? One of the congresswoman’s great skills, a former House Democratic staffer told me recently, is that “she is comfortable both with being in the establishment and with challenging the establishment.”

While Pelosi has long political bloodlines and was elected to the Democratic National Committee in her mid-30s, she hasn’t always been the insider she has become.

When she defeated Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in a fall 2001 contest to become the House Democrats’ new whip, The Washington Post observed that while Hoyer “had chaired the Democratic Caucus and served in other leadership posts, Pelosi styled herself as an outsider who would bring a fresh approach to inside-the-Beltway politics.”

Only 13 months after winning the whip job, Pelosi was elected House minority leader by her party. That made her the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate.

She ran, she said back then, “as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”

Apparently, Pelosi had no problem morphing from insurgent outsider to experienced legislator in the blink of an eye.

As a woman in an arena dominated by men, Pelosi had to see herself as something of an outsider intent on making history.

That fact may well make it easier for her to understand the ambition and impatience of her younger House colleagues, many of whom are women.

In spite of her liberal bent, Pelosi is smart enough and strategic enough in her thinking to know where her party can and cannot go.

A survivor

Her efforts to short-circuit talk of possible impeachment is just the latest example of her savvy.

Her ideological positioning in the party, her gender and her fundraising IOUs have allowed her to survive when others might have lost control of House Democrats.

Even those new House members who would like the party to change more are quick to respect Pelosi.

They understand that she rose up through leadership starting at a time when junior members were expected to be “seen but not heard.”

Of course, Pelosi’s role as party leader will end about a year from now, when the Democratic Party has a de facto presidential nominee.

That person will represent the party nationally, though Pelosi, as speaker, will still have a significant voice.

For years, observers of the House have been asking each other when Pelosi will call it quits. Her recapturing of the speakership, combined with her promise not to serve more than two more terms in the House’s top post and her age, suggest that retirement is fast approaching.

That development, whenever it happens, is likely to be a far bigger headache for the Democratic Party than the gentlelady from California has ever been.

Note: This column appeared initially in the March 26, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Democrats try to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Democrats are off to a fast start in their efforts to blow the 2020 presidential election.

Sure, Donald Trump’s job approval ratings from reputable polling firms still sit in the low- to mid-40s, and congressional investigations are likely to keep the president, his family and his administration on the defensive.

And yes, the 2018 midterms showed what a united Democratic Party looks like and that college-educated whites are swinging to the Democrats in reaction to Trump.

And of course, Trump trails a generic Democrat in early polling, confirming the view that a clear majority of American voters want change in 2020.

But even with all that, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of the Democratic Party has already succeeded in taking the heat off Trump and making the party appear so far left that moderates may not be able to support its nominee for president.

If they continue their early successes, this band of ideological purists may “save” their party from a pragmatic progressive who could actually win the White House, thereby handing Trump a second term.

The recipe for victory

The Democrats’ winning strategy for 2020 ought to include three straightforward steps:

  1. Make the 2020 presidential election about Donald Trump — about his tweeting, his language, his flagrant untruths, his lack of empathy, his efforts to belittle his adversaries, and his affection for authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Kim Jong Un.  As much as possible, make the contest a referendum on his performance, agenda, character and style.
  2. Select a presidential nominee who can energize the Democratic base, including progressives, younger voters and non-whites.
  3. Select a presidential nominee who can attract the votes of swing voters, including those suburban women who helped create the Democratic House wave last year.

This recipe for victory doesn’t require a nominee with a particular ideology or agenda.

A progressive/liberal or a moderate/pragmatist could be elected, as long as he or she completes each of the three steps.

But it’s clear the more extreme the nominee ideologically, the harder it is for the party to appeal to swing voters, including college-educated whites.

The most progressive elements of the Democratic Party will pooh-pooh the notion that an uber-progressive nominee can’t win.

They’ll cite Hillary Clinton’s defeat and insist that Bernie Sanders would have won in 2016. And they’ll argue that getting the party’s base out is crucial to victory, and only hopefuls like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren can do that.

But while an appealing uber-progressive might be able to win under the right circumstances, the chances shrink as the nominee moves further left.

The road to victory still usually depends on winning less ideological voters.

The present reality

So how have the Democrats done in positioning the party for next year’s election? Since the midterms, the party has done an abysmal job of making the 2020 contest about Trump.

The leaders of the Corbyn wing of the party — including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have sought to make everything about themselves and their agenda.

While it’s true that the old quip “Freshmen in Congress should be seen but not heard” is no longer relevant, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib have been unusually vocal and controversial.

Whether it is a proposed “Green New Deal,” criticizing Israel and raising questions about the allegiance of American Jews, or announcing an intention to file an impeachment resolution, the freshman trio have done things to draw attention to themselves and their personal agendas.

The national media, of course, has amplified their statements and agenda, which has taken attention away from Trump.

In baseball terms, Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal (co-sponsored by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey) is a hanging curveball for the GOP to mash over the fence.

Progressives haven’t worked out the details or the cost of specific steps, allowing Republicans to attack it as a radical, exorbitantly expensive, unrealistic agenda.

Similarly, Omar’s comments about Jews and Israel made her look anti-Semitic, intolerant and radical, undercutting the Democratic argument about Trump’s intolerance and meanness.

Tlaib’s initial steps toward impeachment do what party leaders have been trying to avoid for months — they make the Democrats appear partisan and petty, more interested in destroying Trump than in pursuing policies that are good for the American people.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer try to define the Democratic Party in broadly appealing terms, thereby keeping the nation’s focus on Trump, the Corbyn wing is more interested in pushing its agenda, which makes it easier for the GOP to turn the 2020 election into a choice, not a referendum.

Hidden danger

Right now, core Democratic groups appear energized, primarily because they find Trump’s agenda and behavior offensive.

They turned out in the midterms, and polling suggests they remain angry and energized.

The danger here is that if the Corbyn wing pushes impeachment, it puts congressional leaders in a difficult position and risks splitting the party.

If leadership appears to be blocking the Sanders/Warren/Ocasio-Cortez agenda, and the party nominates someone not sufficiently to the left, some progressives could become estranged, sitting out the 2020 election.

For now, Trump’s behavior and the Democrats’ agenda on health care, guns, immigration, climate change and economic inequality is keeping liberals and progressives energized.

But the party’s standing among swing voters is currently fragile. It’s not clear whether Democrats will nominate a ticket that appeals to them, but the more the party is defined by Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez et al, the more it risks pushing swing voters and moderates into Trump’s camp.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Sanders, Warren and others seeking the presidential nomination are likely to continue stirring the pot on issues now that they are in campaign mode.

And Ocasio-Cortez and her friends on the Democratic Party’s left flank are unlikely to grow quiet over the upcoming months. Indeed, they may grow increasingly bold in their willingness to challenge the party’s leadership.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 12, 2019.

GOP rebranding operation is underway – with Democratic help

I have told this story before, but it is well worth repeating.

Shortly after the Democratic sweep of 2006, I spoke to two Democratic leaders in Congress who told me the same thing. It was all well and good that their party had taken control of both chambers of Congress, they said, but what would matter for 2008 — and the next presidential contest — would be how Democrats behaved over the subsequent two years.

Those veteran Democrats insisted that the party needed to show voters it could govern, that it was made up of thoughtful, generally pragmatic people, not wild-eyed extremists who simply wanted to destroy President George W. Bush and return to their tax-and-spend ways.

Democrats face the same challenge today, but they are endangered by a double-pronged attack that makes their task more difficult than it was in 2006.

A perfect foe

Republicans have launched a campaign to redefine Democrats as a gang of radicals who want to undercut basic American institutions and beliefs.

The GOP line goes something like this: These extremists want to turn the United States into Venezuela and destroy democracy and the free market. As House Republican Conference rapid response director Chris Martin wrote recently in a widely distributed e-mail, Democrats are “obsessed with embracing socialism.”

Republicans understand the limits of President Donald Trump’s appeal, and most recognize he won’t change between now and November 2020. They are stuck with an unpopular, tweet-happy president, so the only way to win a second term for Trump is to increase the Democratic Party’s negatives, thereby making its eventual presidential nominee toxic.

I’ve been writing about congressional elections for almost 40 years, and this approach has been standard strategy for decades. When you have a weak nominee and can’t improve his reputation (favorable rating), you try to destroy his opponent (drive up his or her unfavorable rating).

That’s exactly what Trump and the GOP did in 2016, especially after the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump boasting of grabbing women by the genitals exposed him for what he is.

Republican strategists are well aware that Trump has normally fatal liabilities, so they are going to spend the next year demonizing the Democratic Party as extreme.

That way, no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump can paint his opponent with the broad brush of radicalism and socialism.

It’s a good strategy, particularly when it is the only one available. What is the alternative — talking about Trump’s empathy, tolerance, dignity and commitment to inclusiveness?

His supporters don’t need convincing. They adore him. And his critics will never be convinced he is worth supporting. So, the focus of the campaign is voters who don’t like Trump but are worried about what the Democrats might do if they controlled Washington.

Republicans can and will point to the economy to promote the president’s re-election, but 2018 already taught us that a strong economy doesn’t in itself guarantee a winning election for the GOP.

The only strategy available to Republican consultants and talking heads is to make Trump the lesser of two evils — and that means starting off by re-branding the Democratic Party as dangerous, radical, anti-democratic and, yes, evil.

Some free help

The second attack on Democratic leadership’s efforts to prove that the party is ready and able to govern comes from within the Democratic Party itself.

Progressives are angry at Trump and impatient with their own party. They want “real change,” which often means pushing the rhetorical and legislative envelope.

We all understand why progressives are tired of waiting. While Republicans saw Barack Obama as a dangerous radical who wanted to change “our way of life,” liberal Democrats thought him insufficiently aggressive in pushing many issues. Those same Democrats feel as if their agenda has been ignored for years, both by Republicans, who have controlled the White House and/or Congress, and by “establishment” Democrats.

Now, with the country’s demographic profile changing and the Democratic Party no longer dominated by old, white men, party progressives have started to flex their muscles, if only by beginning a conversation about new policy directions.

The mainstream media, fascinated by “firsts,” “isms,” conflicts and personalities, has already been giving outsize coverage to freshman legislators and new voices, as has the conservative media, for very different reasons.

Luckily for Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been able to manage her caucus so far.

But the developing presidential race will make it more difficult for leaders to keep the party together and to encourage all voices to remember that anything they say will give ammunition to the GOP.

There is nothing wrong with the various elements of the Democratic Party discussing, and even arguing, about policy options and priorities over the next year, even though some proposals will play into Trump’s hand and the Republican strategy of defining Democrats as a gang of Nicolás Maduro-loving radicals.

But all Democrats best not forget what those two Democrats I already mentioned told me more than a dozen years ago: If Democrats don’t win the next presidential election, then winning Congress (or the House, in the current case) will turn out to have been a much shallower victory for them than it initially seemed.

Note: An almost identical version of his column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2019.

The Wrong Fight at the Wrong Time for the GOP

You need to hand it to President Donald Trump, his entire administration and his party. It takes more than a little chutzpah to act in a way that seems callous to the concerns of children. First, it was gun control. Now it is immigration in general, and separating children from their parents in particular. If this is the way to winning the midterms, it’s hard to see how.

Republicans have talked for decades about crime, drugs, national security, traditional values, the dangers associated with big government and helping businesses produce economic growth.

GOP candidates are comfortable talking about those themes during campaigns, and the party’s voters have become accustomed to hearing those issues addressed.

Democrats, on the other hand, have talked more about quality-of-life issues, the environment, health care, gun control and helping the more disadvantaged and vulnerable in society, including the poor, the elderly, single mothers and children. Democratic voters expect their candidates to stress those topics and offer prescriptions.

At certain moments, Republican priorities have broader appeal, while at other times the Democratic message has been shown to be superior.

Not surprisingly, swing voters go back and forth between the two parties, depending on the issue mix and the country’s priorities, and enthusiasm within both parties ebbs and flows.

Fall focus

If this November’s elections are about the state of the economy, Republicans will do quite well. Most of the economic indicators are good, and while things could change over the next few months, they are not likely to deteriorate dramatically.

Republicans would likely keep the House and Senate if the midterms were only a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy.

But the economy isn’t dominating voters’ attention these days.

The June 1-4 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked registered voters about the “most important factor in deciding your vote” and found five issues bunched together in the double digits: health care; economy and jobs; guns; taxes and spending; and immigration.

In tough economic times (whether high unemployment or high inflation), the economy and jobs inevitably rank far ahead of other concerns because people think first about putting food on the table and paying the mortgage.

But today, when jobs are relatively plentiful and Americans feel upbeat about the economy, people have time to think about other issues and problems — such as health care, gun control and how people should be treated.

Now, after spending the last couple of years demonizing immigrants, fighting those who advocate more diversity, ripping up government regulations, cutting taxes for corporate America and doing little to respond to a series of school-related shootings, President Donald Trump doubled down on immigration, producing a “zero tolerance” policy that meant separating children from their parents, before backtracking on Wednesday with an executive order after the uproar penetrated even the Oval Office’s usual political calculus.

Core Trump voters — the kind of people who watch the Fox News prime-time lineup religiously and complain that members of the national media are the enemy — are certain to accept White House positions on the border and agree with congressional Republicans on guns.

But core Trump voters won’t decide control of the House in the midterms.

Quinnipiac’s widely noted June 14-17 national poll showed two out of three voters opposing the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when families illegally cross the border.

The numbers among independent voters (68 percent opposing separation), whites with a college degree (68 percent opposing) and white women (65 percent opposing) suggest the White House badly mishandled the issue, and it’s not hard to see why Trump started backpedaling.

Even more than one in three Republicans disapprove of the administration’s behavior.

Misjudging the mood

If reports are correct that Trump thought the “zero tolerance” policy would help him politically, he seems to have miscalculated badly. There is nothing wrong with a president seeking to energize his party’s base. But that is all that Trump ever does.

He never tries to broaden his appeal. The controversy over separating children from their parents, like the White House’s response to school shootings, helps push quality of life to the fore of this election cycle, taking voters’ attention away from the economy.

Trump and his party look cruel and cold-hearted, costing the Republicans female voters, suburbanites, independents and voters with a college degree — and that’s before Democrats spend millions of dollars painting the picture of a president and a political party indifferent to school shootings and insensitive to the plight of children.

Combined with likely improved turnout among liberals and possibly even minorities and younger voters (who often don’t bother to vote in midterms), the movement among swing voters and soft Republicans seems like a recipe for a remarkably good Democratic election.

Trump would be much better off talking about his role in creating jobs and starting a dialogue with North Korea.

But the president, who appears tone-deaf when it comes to quality-of-life issues such as guns, health care and the environment, simply prefers spending his time fighting with America’s friends, imposing tariffs, pushing his immigration agenda and attacking the FBI and Robert Mueller.

And regardless of any presidential or congressional action, the damage to the GOP has already been done.

History suggests Republicans will pay an electoral price in the fall.

Note: This column appeared originally in Roll Call on June 21, 2018