This should be a big year for Democrats. With Republicans sagging under the weight of an unpopular incumbent president, an often-dysfunctional administration, and the burden of controlling both houses of Congress while getting relatively little done, the 2018 midterms promise huge gains for the out-of-power party.
But there are still two grounds for a degree of optimism in the GOP.
One is that a booming economy encouraged by President Trump’s deregulation policy and the tax-reform package passed in December may serve to overcome voter dissatisfaction with the president and the Republicans.
The other is House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Opposition to Pelosi was a rallying cry in both 2010 and 2014 as the GOP used her as a symbol of everything voters hate about the Democrats. She led a liberal Congress that had imposed an unpopular Obamacare bill on the nation without, as she famously admitted, knowing what was actually in the bill. An aging machine politician who has always been primarily focused on fundraising and keeping close to special interests that are key to her party’s bankroll, she also represented the kind of old-style, cynical politics that 21st-century voters hate.
For a party that is in desperate need of a makeover in the aftermath of a shocking 2016 defeat that left Republicans in charge of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, replacing Pelosi with someone more in touch with the party’s base and less likely to offset the unpopularity of the Republicans should have been a no-brainer. But Pelosi survived that loss just as she did the epic shellackings of 2010 and 2014. More than that, she has every intention of returning to the speaker’s chair she relinquished to John Boehner in January 2011. As her near-record filibuster of the House prior to the vote on a spending bill to keep the government open indicated, she is prepared to embrace the challenge of being the face of the Democrats’ attempt to take back control of Congress.
Though it’s not clear that anything Pelosi does or says can possibly be as much of a handicap to the Democrats as some of Trump’s ill-advised statements or tweets might be to the GOP, her conduct in recent weeks is giving Republicans hope.
While still the fundraising dynamo keeping her party’s coffers full and placing many, if not most, of her members in her debt, Pelosi is a gift that doesn’t stop giving for the GOP.
Pelosi’s over-the-top denunciation of the tax-reform bill, in which she more or less guaranteed it would ruin the country as well as the Republicans, was a problem. But what made it worse was when she dismissed the real benefits to middle-class taxpayers of a $1,000 cut as “crumbs.” In that moment she validated Trump’s putdown of her as a “rich woman who lives in a big, beautiful house in California who wants to give all of your money away.” While not quite as bad as Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “deplorables” to put down Trump voters, “crumbs” will serve the GOP nicely as a cudgel with which to slam the Democrats as limousine liberals.
Just as damaging was the clumsy double game she played on the spending bill. She was part of the Democratic team that negotiated a deal with the Republicans to keep the government functioning. But she rejected the outcome of the talks, preferring instead to keep her word to her party’s left wing that she would not accept any solution that did not provide relief for the Dreamers — illegal immigrants brought into the country as minors. Her lengthy rant on the House floor was a demonstration of her willingness to bow to the Democratic base. But as soon as the spending bill was passed with substantial help from Democrats who rejected Pelosi’s stand, the minority leader turned on a dime and said it was a great deal.
Those sorts of shenanigans mark her as the ultimate old-school politician but also make clear how out of touch she is with the voters. Party dissidents such as Ohio representative Tim Ryan keep telling the Democrats they need to present the voters with fresher faces than a House leadership team of Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Assistant Leader James Clyburn — 77, 78, and 77 years of age respectively — but Pelosi and the others have no intention of giving way.
Even if few on the left or in the center like Pelosi, the party appears to be stuck with her.
Ryan is right that Pelosi’s willingness to put the interests of the Dreamers over those of the country and to prioritize that kind of identity politics over economic issues is not a formula for success in the states that are not already in the Democrats’ column. But, as with the GOP, the base rules the Democratic party, and even if few on the left or in the center like Pelosi, the party appears to be stuck with her. With favorability numbers that are even worse than Trump’s, Pelosi is a liability to her party. The question is, how much of a liability?
While it was possible for Republicans to make the 2010 midterms a referendum on Pelosi and Obama, it’s hard to imagine a House minority leader, even one as unpopular as Pelosi, having as much of an impact on the election as a president who is as deeply underwater as Trump (even after a bump in the polls in the last few weeks).
Yet as she demonstrated last week, Pelosi doesn’t seem to understand that the best way to return to the speakership is for her to maintain as low a profile as possible. Pelosi hurts Democrats by depressing their base, which views her as a pillar of the establishment, while giving Republicans a reminder of what they hate about Democrats even if they can’t stand their own party lately.
Pelosi’s partisans accuse Republicans of bullying and demagoguing her, but the truth is that her brand is toxic and taints everyone in her party. The more she pushes herself forward, the more likely it is that she’ll never sit in the speaker’s chair again.