Pelosi in Peril

The House Minority Leader tries a marathon DACA speech to get right with the party’s base.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 07:  U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) speaks to members of the media after her 8-hour long speech on immigration at the Capitol February 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. Pelosi exercised her power as minority leader and launched a filibuster-like floor speech on Dreamers and urged Republicans to take action to solve their status before the March 5th deadline President Trump has set for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks to members of the media after her 8-hour long speech on immigration at the Capitol. Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell announced a bipartisan two-year budget deal. The $400 billion dollar package increases military funding and upends caps on domestic spending in place since the 2011 Budget Control Act, a significant win for Democrats. But the deal was reached without a DACA fix. Senate Democrats abandoned their effort to tie legislation for Dreamers to budget negotiations last month, drawing sharp criticism from both immigration activists and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

As Schumer took to the Senate floor to tout the deal, Pelosi was on the other side of the Hill delivering a marathon speech against it. At over 8 hours, it was the longest continuous House speech on record. ”This is not an issue that is going to go away,” she said. “This is an American value that is deeply felt across the board.” Among those in agreement are the immigration activists who shouted down Pelosi at a San Francisco press conference in September over her negotiations with President Trump on a DACA deal that would have included border security measures. Five months later, Democratic advocacy for anything like the clean DACA bill activists have wanted is essentially dead, and Pelosi has joined them in taking Senate Democrats to task for surrendering leverage that may have been critical to passing a DACA fix at all.

It’s probable that Pelosi is simply trying to play to the party’s base, but it’s easy to imagine that she’s genuinely a little disappointed with Schumer’s negotiating. Her skill as a legislator is rarely questioned, even among the growing crop of House Democrats who have suggested she should step aside. “Nancy Pelosi was an effective speaker, and she has been an effective minority leader,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, a frequent Pelosi critic, told Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere late last year. “No one doubts that she knows how to play the game and make the most of her situation.”

With midterm elections ahead, the purported problem with Pelosi, according to pundits, isn’t her competence, but her unpopularity in competitive House districts the Democrats are hoping to succeed in come November. Republicans are “counting on Nancy Pelosi deciding to stay in her position as House Dem leader, and becoming a foil for GOP candidates, especially those running in competitive and red-state congressional districts,” wrote NBC’s Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann on Wednesday morning. Obviously, Pelosi has been a fixture of negative Republican advertising and messaging for over a decade now—Jon Ossoff’s loss in Georgia’s special election last June was widely attributed to Republicans inundating the airwaves and mailboxes with anti-Pelosi messaging.

One creepy and representative piece of direct mail straightforwardly depicted Ossoff as Pelosi under a rubbery mask. “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top,” Rep. Filemon Vela told Politico after the election.

As Vela suggested, Pelosi is widely disliked. NBC/WSJ poll released in September found that 25 percent of Americans viewed Pelosi favorably, compared to 39 percent with favorable views of President Trump. And yet, the poll also found that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are also deeply unpopular, with favorability ratings of 24 and 11 percent respectively. Another NBC/WSJ poll from November found that in counties that Trump either flipped or significantly outperformed Mitt Romney in, Pelosi was viewed positively by 16 percent of respondents and negatively by 44 percent while Mitch McConnell was viewed positively by 11 percent of respondents and negatively by 35 percent.  Clearly, there’s plenty of leadership hate to go around.

Moreover, the fact that Democrats lost 11 Senate seats, 62 House seats, 12 governorships, and 958 state legislative seats over the course of the Obama administration suggests that the party’s electoral problems might run a bit deeper than the person who happens to be the House Minority Leader. Nevertheless, politicos have a habit of talking about Pelosi with an air of superstition, as though she’s some unlucky object that ought to be discarded, or as if there exists some rulebook that would prevent Republicans from calling Democrats out-of-touch liberals with San Francisco values if she were out of the picture. There isn’t one. And the conservative-leaning voters in swing districts where it’s feared Pelosi might be a liability don’t have a shortage of reasons why they might dislike, distrust, and disagree with the Democratic politicians that will actually be on the ballot.

That’s not to say Pelosi isn’t holding the party back in other ways—those urging the party to move substantially further left are going to be frustrated by her leadership for as long as she chooses to stick around. Asked last year about Medicare for All, for instance—supported now by not only a flock of potential 2020 contenders but a significant majority of her caucus— Pelosi argued that the issue shouldn’t be a litmus test for Democrats and that the topic should be shelved while Republicans attack Obamacare, although she has claimed, repeatedly and unconvincingly, that she supports single-payer in theory. “Many of the features of single payer are contained in the Affordable Care Act,” she lied at an event last June. “It isn’t helpful to tinkle all over the ACA right now.”

But elected Democrats piping up now to complain about Pelosi’s long tenure in leadership seem less troubled by her place in the party’s ideological old guard than by the fact that she’s old. When asked by Politico last year whether he would run to replace the 77-year-old Pelosi, Rep. Joe Crowley, a fresh-faced whipper-snapper at 55, demurred saying, “there’s a lot of young talent coming up the ranks,” and that it would be up to the caucus.

Granted, the grip elder Democrats have on the party has genuinely become something of an embarrassment given the party’s more youthful composition by comparison to the GOP, which has elevated younger leaders more aggressively.

Before Rep. John Conyers announced his resignation in December, Pelosi fought calls for the 88 year old congressman—in office since 1965—to step down over sexual misconduct allegations for over a week. One of the leading candidates to replace Pelosi if she steps down is House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who has reportedly argued that, as leader, he would serve as “a bridge” to an evidently unprepared generation of younger Democrats. He is 78.

But a shakeup that replaced Pelosi, Hoyer, and other Democratic leaders with younger faces offering the same rhetoric and policy priorities wouldn’t be a changeover of any substance at all. Centrist New Democrat Coalition members Rice and Seth Moulton have been among the loudest voices calling for new leadership, as has Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who ran an attention-seeking campaign against Pelosi for minority leadership in November and has criticized the party for leaning too heavily into identity politics.

None of those people are likely to set the party’s increasingly progressive base abuzz, but if there is some large constituency in the party itching for purely cosmetic change, they can rest assured that a new crop of establishment Democrats will take the stage should the House remain in Republican hands come November. Pelosi, of course, would be the first to go. “A stealthy discussion is already underway within the Democratic Caucus,” Politico’s Heather Caygle and John Bresnahan reported Tuesday, “particularly among members whose only experience in Congress is in the minority.” If the Democratic Party underperforms significantly in November and identifies Nancy Pelosi as the locus of their problems, those members are going to have to get used to minority status.