What, Exactly, Do Nancy Pelosi’s Dissidents Want to Prove?

In the Blue Wave Era, she's hardly progressivism's preferred face. It doesn't make her unable to lead.

Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP file.

Through an anonymous vote of all Democrats in the US House, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has secured the nomination to resume her leadership position in the 116th Congress. She’ll now prepare for a full vote in early January, with all 435 newly elected (and re-elected) Representatives participating, and with the Democrats in control, she’ll almost certainly become Speaker of the House once again.

This time, however, will be unlike the last time, when she served as Speaker for the final two years of George W. Bush’s final term and the first two years of Obama’s first term. In 2019, she will lead the only branch of the Federal government under the control of the Democratic Party. She will become, in effect, the public face of the “resistance” to the increasingly cruel and unpopular GOP agenda.

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As a Democrat, I admit that the idea of putting Pelosi in such a publicly visible position makes me nervous, full of anticipation, and thoroughly unexcited. Even in this Year of the Women, Pelosi seems detached from the zeitgeist. This may be why, even though no one ran against her within the Democratic caucus, 32 Democrats voted “no” on her leadership — an option, by the way, that Pelosi granted to her fellow caucus members. This may also be why she continues to struggle to find enough total votes to become Speaker.

Part of my mixed feelings about Pelosi revolve around how deeply associated she was, and still is, with the brutal legislative and budgetary battles of Obama’s early years, and with the Democrats’ catastrophic House loss in 2010 — eight long years ago. It’s a legacy, and hers casts a long shadow. For some she’s a warrior, but a warrior from the governmental conflicts of yesteryear, not someone who embodies the excitement and energy of the new blue wave set to wash over Washington.

To be fair, experience and age are not faults, and they do come with baggage. What is Pelosi’s fault is her ongoing resistance to generational change. In 2019, she will turn 79; her second-in-command, Rep. Steny Hoyer, will turn 80; her third-in-command, Rep. James Clyburn, will turn 79. It’s not ageist to characterize them as elderly; it’s not radical to call them legitimately centrist, with a knack for canned, Clinton-esque talking points that underscore the generational divide. When questioned on anything progressive — universal healthcare, say — Pelosi and her crew exude fear. They carry themselves like 1990s Democrats, terrified that the Reagan coalition will pop up and wallop them as “tax-and-spend liberals.” Fearful governing just doesn’t make sense anymore. Over the past 25 years, the country has become increasingly liberal on topics like healthcare, gun control, campaign finance and the legalization of marijuana. America is begging for bold leadership right now, and 40 bold, new, exciting Democrats are heading to Congress. Ask yourself: Is Pelosi one of them?

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But this is also where legitimate criticisms of Pelosi ends. In fact, Pelosi’s detractors oppose her for many of the wrong reasons. Some of her critics represent more moderate, blue-collar districts where Pelosi is widely unpopular — a “San Francisco liberal.” Other critics complain that she won’t push a progressive agenda; that she doesn’t believe, personally, in left-leaning legislation. Both arguments are seriously flawed.

First, as I discussed in a previous CFR article, Democrats should not reward Republicans’ success at un-popularizing Pelosi. Such unpopularity has little to do with reality; it is borne out of powerful right-wing propaganda that portrayed her, from 2010 through this year, as a kooky, hair-brained, liberal socialist. Pelosi is ideologically moderate; no one will mistake her for a radical. And the question of her intellect is absurd: nobody should take advice on intelligence from a party that tripped all over itself to nominate Donald “I have brainpower like you wouldn’t believe” Trump for US President. Nor will dumping Pelosi end it: whoever leads the House Democrats after Pelosi will inevitably face the same baseless demonizing. Considering, however, that Democrats won the midterm House vote by the largest popular vote majority since Watergate, it doesn’t seem like Pelosi’s “brand” is the hurdle to power that her critics would have you believe.

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Second, the argument that Pelosi is a flawed legislative leader has no credibility. As Speaker from 2007 to 2011, she passed the Affordable Care Act. She passed $800 billion in fiscal stimulus at the bottom of the Great Recession. She raised the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. She spearheaded the largest expansion of financial aid in half a century. She may not champion the most progressive policy goals, but she openly states her willingness to consider them. She will be a powerful and effective ally, for example, of Medicare for all.

Third, while some progressives find Pelosi impure ideologically, she also faces resistance from the right flank of her party: the more moderate Democrats attached to the Problem Solvers Caucus. In exchange for supporting Pelosi’s return as House Speaker, this group is demanding more transparency in passing amendments. They want to allow any member of Congress, regardless of party, to bring legislation with two-thirds support to the floor of the House. Bipartisanship is a noble endeavor, but why give Republicans cover while voting with the White House 90% of the time or more? Here’s another problem with the Problem Solvers Caucus: many of its members are funded by shady, largely unaccountable political action committees run by conservative billionaires. Why empower Republicans at a time when America clearly doesn’t agree with their agenda?

Democrats need to consider that a good legislative leader and a good party spokesperson are different things. Pelosi has earned the right to be the former. Her critics are right to lambast her for trying to play the latter. If the Democrats are smart, it won’t be Pelosi who promotes the Democratic agenda to the media. It will be the newly-minted “Blue Wave” Democrats — the young, diverse group with the energy to rally Americans to the cause. It’s a shame that Democrats haven’t figured out how — and why — to separate these roles. It is the perfect time to learn from the past and grow.