Is Nancy Pelosi a sellout? This week, a chorus of progressives chastised the House speaker for a New York Times interview, published on Saturday, in which she counseled against impeachment proceedings and distanced herself from the “exuberances” of her party’s left flank. The criticism, which Pelosi was forced to address at subsequent forums—one on Tuesday at Cornell University and a second on Wednesday with the Washington Post—is overwrought. Pelosi is a disciplined leader who understands basic rules of political strategy. She’s applying them shrewdly to impeachment and 2020.
Some critics on the left bristle at Pelosi’s language in the interview about staying in the “mainstream,” along with her refusal to support big ideas like the Green New Deal. But at the level of policy, there’s little daylight between the speaker and the left. The issues she talked about in the Times are the same ones she acts on in the House and brings up in press conferences: health care, “bigger paychecks,” infrastructure, and the environment. The list goes on: education, equal pay, gun safety, immigration reform, Social Security, violence against women.
Many progressives think the best way to attract and mobilize voters is to push big ideas like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Pelosi disagrees. Big ideas often alarm the other side’s voters more than they inspire yours. Instead, she focuses on specific policies that affect people’s lives. She knows such policies are easier to explain and harder to caricature. And she emphasizes tangible benefits. “The climate issue is a jobs issue,” she says.
The smarter play, in Pelosi’s view, is to defend policies that are well understood and supported. Let your enemy be the aggressor, and rally your base against his attack. Instead of pushing Medicare for All, the speaker targets President Donald Trump’s assault on the Affordable Care Act. She specifies elements of the ACA that score well in polls: “protections against pre-existing conditions, bans on lifetime limits and annual limits, the Medicare-Medicaid expansion, savings for seniors on their prescription drugs, [and] premium assistance that makes health coverage affordable.”
Pelosi understands that Trump is just a foil. The real goal is to build a relationship with voters. Contrary to perception, she hasn’t ruled out impeachment. But she does think Democrats should talk less about Trump and more about connecting with the public. She sidesteps questions about the president’s tweets, insisting that Democrats are focusing on helping ordinary people. When the speaker is asked about Attorney General Bill Barr’s testimony to Congress on the Russia investigation, she talks instead about the Justice Department’s effort to gut the ACA. She believes that persuadable 2020 voters—those who aren’t sure which way they’ll vote or whether they’ll show up at all—care less about the fight between the parties than about which party is paying attention to their needs.
In Pelosi’s view, a politician’s job is to produce results. In the House, that requires 218 votes. The peril of the moment—an executive branch controlled by the most dangerous president in living memory—makes it even more crucial that Democrats maintain control of a chamber of Congress. The speaker calls herself “a liberal from San Francisco,” but she reminds colleagues that there aren’t enough deep blue districts to elect a majority. She focuses on issues that, while important to progressives, will also help Democrats in more vulnerable districts. On Tuesday, at the Cornell forum, Pelosi acknowledged that this “coldblooded” battle plan could cause “unease for some people who may want to go way in one direction.” But she warned that if Democrats were to lose the purple districts, the left would lose power altogether.
Some critics see Pelosi’s centrist language as weak and uninspiring. But she cares about policies, not ideologies, so she’s ruthless about embracing or shedding labels. She believes, for instance, that fairness is a more popular and less incendiary term than socialism. At a press conference last month, a reporter asked her about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to make 2020 a referendum on socialism. Pelosi replied that McConnell had engineered tax cuts for the rich, and she asked what he was doing to help ordinary people. At Cornell, Pelosi accused Republicans of using the word socialism to hide their attacks on popular programs. “They’re saying that Medicare and Medicaid and raising the minimum wage are acts of socialism,” the speaker scoffed. “No, they’re not. They’re about fairness.”
A party can win more votes, in Pelosi’s view, by claiming to represent the middle than by claiming to represent a wing or a movement. “The Republicans have abandoned the center. The left can own it,” she argued on Tuesday. “Redefine what the center is, and don’t let them define our agenda as something that is far left.” On immigration, for example, Trump wants to frame Democrats as the party of “open borders.” Pelosi rejects that label—“we all agree we must secure our border,” she says—and narrows the debate to whether Trump’s wall is the best way to do it.
Unlike younger progressives, some of whom have grown up with the idea that all Republicans are callous or evil, Pelosi remembers when the parties worked together. She believes that some voters who lean Republican can be turned against the party of Trump. To that end, she exalts former Republican presidents, pitting their words or deeds against what she portrays as Trump’s heresies. At the forums on Tuesday and Wednesday, Pelosi cited President Ronald Reagan 15 times, contrasting his embrace of immigration with Trump’s xenophobia. Rather than condemn the whole GOP, she hopes to pry away some of its voters.
Democrats often lose elections by talking robotically about policies while Republicans play to the gut. Pelosi tries to rectify that bad habit. Despite her jokes about San Francisco liberalism, she’s a serious Catholic. She connects policies to values, and she targets religious communities, even those that lean Republican. Health care, she insists, is a values issue. So is protecting the environment, which she calls “God’s creation.” So is separating children from parents at the border, which Pelosi condemns as an assault on “family values.” She courts evangelicals, viewing them as a receptive audience to the Democratic case for humane treatment of refugees.
As for impeachment, Pelosi thinks Democrats should take things one step at a time. She believes that Trump has committed impeachable offenses. But she recognizes that as things stand, Senate Republicans would acquit the president, and the GOP would use the impeachment fight to rally its voters. So instead of launching a formal impeachment process, she proposes to continue House committee proceedings that build on the Mueller report and other investigations. On Tuesday, Pelosi pointed out that President Richard Nixon’s resignation came after “months of investigation,” which turned the public against him and undercut his support in Congress. Start with subpoenas and hearings, she advised, and “see where the facts take us.”
Pelosi’s strategy is certainly open to dispute. She praises current Republican lawmakers, which complicates her pitch to vote Democratic. She also advises candidates not to talk about Trump, because telling voters that “they made a mistake” by electing Trump in 2016 might “antagonize” them. That advice might be prudent in deep red districts, but it’s hard to make an honest case against Trump’s party without addressing Trump’s misconduct. She says she’s intent on locking up her House majority this November, a year early, by positioning her party so firmly in the center that strong Republican challengers will be scared off. That might be playing it too safe. And, as Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley has noted, she seems excessively worried that Trump won’t accept the 2020 election results if Democrats don’t win big. I suspect she’s using that scenario as a scare tactic to motivate her troops.
But on the whole, the speaker has it right. “Public sentiment is everything,” she likes to say, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “With it, you can accomplish almost anything. Without it, practically nothing.” Pelosi schooled Trump in the fight over the government shutdown, and she’s patiently waiting him out in the standoff over who will propose taxes to pay for an infrastructure plan. The liberals of San Francisco should be proud.