Politics & Policy

Learning from Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi on Capitol Hill in 2013 (Reuters photo: Jason Reed)
Moral hysteria makes political consensus impossible.

Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio is challenging former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for the leadership of the Democratic party in the House of Representatives. “This thing where an obscure male backbencher thinks he deserves to replace the most accomplished woman in Congress is how sexism works,” scoffed Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress.


Mrs. Pelosi is the scion of an old Democratic political clan (her father served in the House and was later the mayor of Baltimore but, because of the moral failings of our international crimes-against-humanity tribunals, was never brought to justice for his role in helping to turn Baltimore into Baltimore), and her accomplishments consist of — nothing obvious. That she seems to the gentlemen of ThinkProgress more “accomplished” than, say, combat helicopter pilot and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth says a great deal about the gentlemen from ThinkProgress. Aside from her relative success in the matter of accumulating intra-party power for herself, Mrs. Pelosi is not an obviously more accomplished woman than is Doris Matsui, who also treats politics as a family business.

But of course this must be sexism, since it always is sexism when a Democratic woman is criticized or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, challenged. Never mind that the rogues’ gallery of female Democrats — Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sheila Jackson Lee, etc. — is notable only for the fact that the worst of them seem to go by three names, like serial killers, and that together with such nominally truncated worthies as Elizabeth Warren and the hilariously corrupt Corrine Brown they make a pretty good case that the flower of Democratic womanhood is hemlock.

The fact that the progressive case against Representative Ryan is going to be that he has a penis attached to his pubic symphysis rather than pickled in a jar in a cupboard opened only for very special coven conclaves is of some interest beyond low-minded amusement.

As my colleague Jonah Goldberg has documented, one of the Left’s habitual tactics is treating every progressive political project as “the moral equivalent of war,” a rhetorical innovation that goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson. If it is not the moral equivalent of war, then it is an extraordinary moral panic, which is what we are seeing right now in response to the fact that the United States has had a presidential election and is preparing for the peaceful transfer of power from a formerly obscure male backbencher (who famously and successfully challenged the other most accomplished woman in Congress) to an oddball game-show host who once pretended to be his own press agent in order to lie about his sex life to the New York press.

Hurray, democracy.

The problems with treating every lost election and political disagreement as the advent of a new Hitler are many.

The problems with treating every lost election and political disagreement as the advent of a new Hitler are many. For one thing, it causes people to say many stupid things. Congressional Republicans were charged with “plotting” against Barack Obama from the moment of his election — plotting seditiously no less — with this “sedition” consisting of a secret plan to resist his political agenda; apparently, our progressive friends have not figured out that when the members of one party disagree with the members of another party and try to have their own way rather than let their opponents prevail, that is called “politics” and “democracy.” A second problem, recently discovered by Bill Maher (one of the great advantages of having the intellectual capacity of a vole is that one is always discovering things!) is the “crying wolf” problem, i.e., that shouting “Hitler/racist/sexist/monster!” at such anodyne figures as Mia Love and Rand Paul cheapens the vocabulary available for the case of a man such as Donald Trump, a batty nationalist-socialist and genuine loose cannon. And Donald Trump, while he is among the worst of us, is not the very worst of us.

A third and more fundamental problem is presented by the moral-crisis model of politics, and here Republicans, too, would do well to think on their approach to politics in the short term, which will see a GOP-dominated House and Senate allied, however uneasily, with a putatively Republican president, while Republicans prevail in the state legislatures and a heavy majority of governorships: That is the problem of consensus.

Contrary to the usual banalities offered up by those who believe that “moderate” is a synonym for “wise,” there is no particular transcendent virtue in bipartisanship or compromise. You do not compromise with Hitler, you defeat him. But you do not encounter Hitlers all that often. And although nationalist-socialist thinking is having a moment right now, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler.

Neither was Paul Ryan. And that is one of the reasons why Democrats should, if they value real reform in the long term, ditch Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats, especially the more self-consciously progressive of them, love the Nordic model of government, or at least what they mistakenly believe to be the Nordic model. (In reality, the Nordic countries have seen a great deal of free-market reform in the past 25 years, and have robust market economies driven by free trade and entrepreneurship abetted by moderate corporate taxes and relatively straightforward regulation.) But American progressives, who are not quite as cosmopolitan as they like to imagine themselves, see only relatively high Nordic income-tax rates and relatively generous Nordic social-insurance programs. What they do not see — and are incapable of appreciating — is the consensus-oriented political culture that sustains the Nordic welfare states. At their worst, Nordic cultures slide into “Jante law,” a cult of conformity, but at their best they ensure that deep and far-reaching public-policy changes are rooted in genuine political consensus, which makes such policies stable. U.S. conservatives, who have been in a radical mood for the past 20 years or so, have to some extent forgotten the virtues of stability, whereas progressives never really understood them to begin with.

Republicans have an opportunity to do better than the Democrats did with Obamacare

Consider the case of the so-called Affordable Care Act, passed on a straight party-line vote by a Congress under unitary Democratic control and signed by a Democratic president after a legislative process that ran roughshod over the opposition and a political process that relied on a great deal of hysterical screeching about how Republicans wanted poor people to die, a nonsense accusation that remains popular. There was no consensus behind Obamacare; the American people were, and are, deeply divided on the issue. The Republicans’ so-called obstruction is an expression of that division, not a cause of it. President Obama, who believes that his job is to make speeches, left the heavy legislative lifting to congressional Democrats under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid, who are both incompetent. Not one Republican voted for the resulting legislation, and Republicans have campaigned against Obamacare — successfully — in every election since. Indeed, a raft of bad news about higher Obamacare premiums almost certainly played a role in the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

At the signing ceremony, Obamacare looked like a great victory. But there probably will be another signing ceremony, with President Trump voiding the Affordable Care Act as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell fidget uncomfortably in the background behind a bevy of Hooters girls and a kiosk of marketing material for the new Trump Tower Vladivostok. Obamacare looked like a victory — and, more important to Democrats, it felt like one — only because progressives are in thrall to a political culture that rejects consensus, preferring instead to humiliate and exclude those with different political views through delegitimization campaigns attempting to brand them all racists, sexists, and bigots of other sorts.

#related#Republicans are, needless to say, vulnerable to a similar kind of thinking and a similarly destructive strain of politics. They have an opportunity to do better than the Democrats did with Obamacare — not only on health-care reform, which is necessary, but also on tax reform, immigration, and other questions. There will be a time to run roughshod over the Democrats, which is probably what will happen in the matter of Supreme Court appointments and other occasions upon which senators will be invited to provide their advice and consent to the (strange words to write) Trump administration. That necessity is a testament to the lamentable state of our judicial institutions and to the Left’s success in converting them into superlegislatures. But other long-term reform projects are going to require buy-in from Democrats, including those resident in The Bubble, if they are going to be stable and effective in the long term. Stable and predictable public policies are at least as important to long-term investment — and, hence, to long-term prosperity — as is cutting a few percentage points off the nominal corporate-tax rate.

It is true that compromise and the cultivation of consensus are not necessarily always good for their own sake, and some issues, such as abortion, are mainly closed to compromise. But conservatives should value stability and predictability in government — and Republicans should be looking toward long-term reform projects rather than merely chasing shallow first-100-days victories to put in the 2018 campaign commercials.

Nancy Pelosi generously provided her opponents with a lavish smorgasbord of deeply stupid mistakes, and it would be deeply stupid to refuse to learn from them.


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