Politics & Policy

Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Sinking Democratic Brand

(Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Her open threats to rivals epitomize the old-school gutter politics that are integral to her party’s problems.

A lack of self-confidence is not one of House minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s problems. But Pelosi’s unabashed use of open threats and her death grip on power are a very big problem for her party.

Pelosi’s performance at her press conference on Thursday was epic in its demonstration of both her enormous self-regard and her complete confidence that nothing and no one will remove her from her powerful perch. While no one really expected that comments from a few stray dissident members of the House caucus would cause her to resign, her contempt for those critics and her willingness to threaten them publicly takes your breath away. She didn’t just mock them for “having fun on TV.” She pointedly reminded them that “every action has a reaction . . . every attack provokes a massive reaction.”

Pelosi’s honesty here is a refreshing spectacle, if not a particularly edifying one. It reminds one more of President Trump than of any Democrat. Not every politician — let alone one who operates on a national stage, like Pelosi — is willing to brandish her brass knuckles in public with a smirk, confident that she wouldn’t suffer from doing so. Nor would even the greatest egotists working with her in a Capitol overflowing with egomaniacs be able to keep as straight a face as she managed in her presser when she praised herself publicly as a “master legislator” and an “astute leader.”

To which the dissidents reply: Anyone who has led them to four consecutive defeats, bringing their House caucus to its lowest point in the last 90 years, and whose name has become a cudgel with which to beat every House candidate put forward by the Democrats, ought to be astute enough to know when it is time to go. But for a woman who as Democratic leader has clung to power grimly for 14 years, it will clearly take more than a few defeats to pry her from her office.

To be fair to Pelosi, she wasn’t the sole or maybe even the most important reason Jon Ossoff lost the Georgia special election this week. Her party poured so much cash into it, as their media cheerleaders eagerly anticipated spinning a Democratic victory as a referendum on President Trump. The complaints heard this week from Tim Ryan, Kathleen Rice, Seth Moulton, and other House Democrats were no different from those uttered after the Democrats were relegated to the minority again last November — or from any other time since she was ousted from the speaker’s chair in the tea-party revolution of 2010.

Nor is Pelosi, as the Republicans like to portray her in their effective attack ads aired in places like Georgia’s sixth district, a true champion of the far-left politics that her San Francisco constituency represents to the rest of the country. Though reliably liberal, she is not a radical or a left-winger in the Bernie Sanders mold. To the contrary, she is a traditional machine Democratic politician, who likes to boast of her fundraising prowess. And that, rather than her political stands, is why her critics are right. In that sense, she represents everything that is wrong with the Democrats.

While Democrats like to say that they are the party of the young and that this portends their eventual return to power, they are led by a sclerotic band of elderly power brokers who bear a troubling resemblance to the party bosses of a bygone era of American political history. The Democrats’ House leadership team of Pelosi, her longtime antagonist Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn are, respectively, 77, 78, and 76. When you consider that the Democrats’ two leading presidential contenders last year were the 69-year-old Hillary Clinton and the 75-year-old Bernie Sanders, it’s little wonder that Democrats are frustrated with their party’s inability to promote younger and fresher faces. 

Democrats are led by a sclerotic band of elderly power brokers who bear a troubling resemblance to the party bosses of a bygone era of American political history.

The trio of House Democratic septuagenarians is representative of the politics of the past, not just in terms of their stale liberal ideology but also in their tactics and belief in old-school methods. Just as important is that they have been systematically muscling younger competitors aside for a generation. Though there are some who think that Pelosi is holding on to her perches only out of spite, so that Hoyer will not succeed her, the Democratic leader’s desire to become speaker once again is probably all the motivation she needs.

But, as her critics pointed out this week, the ability of Republicans to mobilize their voters by invoking the specter of another term for Pelosi as speaker could keep her and her party in the minority for the rest of the decade.

Pelosi and the rest of her allies are ignoring that concern because they are convinced that 2016 was an aberration and that Trump’s certain demise will rescue their fortunes. One shouldn’t underestimate Trump’s ability to do just that if he can’t learn to stop himself from making unforced errors such as his claim of having tapes of his conversations with former FBI director James Comey. It has only fed the impeachment fever that has gripped Democrats.

But after four straight defeats, it’s not clear that the burden of having Trump in the White House will sink the GOP House majority anymore than the benefit of having Obama as president enabled Pelosi to win back the speakership. If, as many Democrats are now confessing, their brand is even worse than that of the Republicans, Pelosi is the face of that problem.

As much as Trump can hurt the Republicans, the Democrats remain a party that hasn’t had a fresh idea since the New Deal or the Great Society. That’s bad enough, but when your leader is someone who isn’t ashamed to act like she’s a Depression-era political thug, selling it as a voice of the future is impossible. Pelosi’s boasts and threats are everything that is wrong with the Democrats, but as long as most of her members act like they don’t know it, they’re likely to remain a powerless and increasingly frustrated minority.


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