Both Republicans and Democrats are complaining about Nancy Pelosi again, which can only mean that everything’s going exactly as she’s planned.
Pelosi’s critics have been predicting the end of her tenure as leader of the House Democrats since it began. And yet she remains the most competent wrangler of congressional votes on either side of the aisle or the Capitol dome. On the Senate side, Chuck Schumer’s task is a lower level of difficulty. GOP leaders Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, on the other hand, struggle with insurrections and a mercurial president that leave them unable to capitalize on the power they compromised themselves for.
Meanwhile, Pelosi soldiers on. It’s telling that she’s often mocked for her stiffness because what people should be scared of is her spine.
She was underestimated and scapegoated even before she ascended to speaker in 2007: Republicans raised her as a campaign issue starting in 2006. Democrats gave her until the 2010 midterms before going public with the same set of criticisms you hear today: She’s too liberal, too uninspiring, too easy a target.
Rather suddenly, the talented legislator – whose deft party discipline pushed the Affordable Care Act over the finish line months before – was the boogeywoman for anyone who needed one. Blue Dog Democrats running in conservative districts even used money raised by Pelosi to run ads distancing themselves from her. For her part, Pelosi seemed to take these back-talking Benedict Arnolds in stride: “They know their districts,” she told a reporter at the time. “They are great communicators, very eloquent communicators to their own constituents.”
Not quite so eloquent as all that, it turned out. The moderate Democrats who denounced Pelosi as too progressive – call them Conservatives Lite – mostly lost in races where Republicans had a Conservative Extreme option, a.k.a. the tea party. After the “great shellacking” of 2010 came a dribble of handwringing think pieces about whether Pelosi was really the best person to represent the party, occasionally enhanced by an actual candidate or member of Congress offering thoughts on the need for change. There were vague gestures toward a more centrist direction. Meanwhile, Pelosi soldiered on.
Trump’s election did not sharpen these criticisms of Pelosi – give them any policy direction, for instance – it only made them louder. And I imagine they will have about the same effect after November.
I’m not a fan of the maxim that if one is angering “both sides,” you must be doing something right. I think it’s more likely that if you’re angering both sides, you might be doing something right … or you might just be a woman. Pelosi is a woman who is also doing something right.
I won’t rehash the myriad ways that criticism of Pelosi, from the left and right, gets bent through the lens of gender. Democrats are probably not wrong to think that a younger white man with more conservative views would wind up being more popular, nationally, than Pelosi ever could be – but at what cost?
First of all, as Conor Lamb’s Pennsylvania victory showed, it is still useful to see some daylight between a candidate and the party leader. Republicans are figuring this out somewhat belatedly. It has actually enabled the Democrats to preserve more ideological diversity than they are given credit for. (Certainly they offer more than the Trumpian monoculture.) Ironically, it’s that very diversity that leads to the perennial pundit speculation that her job is in danger.
For all this supposed infighting, however, there is no Democratic version of the Freedom Caucus. When Pelosi battles with her caucus, it is with a multiplicity of carpers; rarely are they able to wield the kind of disproportionate sway that’s left the supposed super-wonk Speaker Ryan at the mercy of junior congressmen and Trump acolytes.
The best arguments for and against Pelosi amount to the same thing: She’s a hack. She tolerates disingenuous votes and showy rebellions as long as she can shepherd along whatever legislative maneuver is at hand. She doesn’t care about displays of ideological consistency. Her leadership walks a fine line between consensus and stagnation. She is, in other words, a hack in the tradition of Tip O’Neill, John Boehner and Richard Gephardt.
But at least her party can still be run by a hack. The Republican establishment’s willingness to move further and further to the right to placate its loudest voices has given McConnell and Ryan ungovernable majorities. Indeed, Republicans prize Pelosi so much as a villain because she’s one of the few things that unite them.
In the end, Nancy Pelosi isn’t unpopular because of policy positions. She’s unpopular because she’s “Nancy Pelosi,” a character – or caricature – for those who want to declare they are not her. She knows this and is happy to let those who need to make this argument make it – all the better for growing the caucus that she still so skillfully controls. She’s a straw man … with an iron fist.
Ana Marie Cox is the host of Crooked Media’s “With Friends Like These.” @anamariecox