August 16, 2018 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

What We’re Not Talking About When We Talk About Nancy Pelosi

House Dems are jockeying for the best position from which to seize power.

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We need to talk about something no one is talking about in the ongoing and rather annoying debate over Nancy Pelosi and the likelihood, after November’s midterm election, that she will once again become the Speaker of the House.

When I say we need to talk about something no one is talking about, I do not mean sexism or ageism or any of the ordinary positions allies take when defending Pelosi, who was, objectively speaking, the greatest speaker of the 21st century* and who continues to be, objectively speaking, a fundraising juggernaut* for the Democrats even as she continues to be, objectively speaking, a lightning rod of controversy.

When I say we need to talk about something no one is talking about, I mean we need to talk about the role of ambition, careerism, and the primal lust for power that is the hallmark of Washington and the plain-vanilla subtext of every newspaper story fretting and needlessly freaking over the fate of Pelosi and her party.

To be sure, sexism and ageism are probably at the root of Washington’s obsession with the San Francisco liberal, but sexism and ageism are probably blinding reporters to what’s clearly going on: the House Democratic caucus can smell power in the wind, and members are jockeying for the best position from which to seize it.

This is not to say that candidates and incumbents are wrongly distancing themselves from Pelosi. I’m guessing a preponderance of caution is preventing candidates and incumbents from saying, “I do dearly love that Nancy Pelosi!” It’s hard to know how voters would respond—and, honestly, why would voters care about that?

This is to say, however, that in seeing such caution, some are seeing more than that. They are seeing political liability. We can see this in claims like this: “The Democratic Party cannot be seen as the party of Nancy Pelosi and win in November*.”

Pish. Voters don’t care about Nancy Pelosi. I’ll tell you who does, though. Power-hungry Democrats* who recognize the liability of being seen as power-hungry and who launder that power-hunger with seemingly credible worries about Republican attack ads and other things that can be credibly cited as reasons for Pelosi to step aside.

I may seem critical of these Democrats. I don’t intend to be. I see nothing wrong with a party that can smell power in the wind competing for it. That signals a healthy party, frankly. The Democrats do not deserve their reputation for being in disarray.

I am, however, critical of certain reporters who actually know what’s going on but pretend not to to justify writing stories that fit a preconceived narrative about political parties out of power. That narrative holds that parties out of power are parties in disarray. That was truly the case during the Obama years, but even being in disarray didn’t prevent the GOP from winning in 2010 and 2014. There’s a simple explanation: intra-party tensions didn’t matter. What mattered was opposing President Obama.

This is the fundamental dynamic of 2018. The Democrats are the minority. The Republicans are the majority. Political winds historically favor the minority party.

But this fundamental dynamic is intensified by another: a president who cannot let a day go by without being in the headlines. Even if candidates and incumbents were to say, “Vote for me, because I just love me some Nancy Pelosi!” it’s likely no one would notice. The press would be chasing down the next tweet or scandal—the next time Trump enacts policies brutalizing kids or sides with Russia’ ruling kleptocrat.

To be sure, rage and resentment tend to motivate people to vote, especially Republicans. You could say Pelosi is giving GOP candidates and incumbents a convenient target. An editorial in the Sacramento Bee predicts that dislike of Pelosi will increase the closer we get to November. Therefore, the editorial said, she should declare, right now, that she will not seek being Speaker of the House.

Bosh. The politics of rage and resentment requires big easy-to-see targets—someone like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And that target needs to be someone who’s already in power, like Obama, or someone who wants presidential power, like Clinton. People who vote out of rage and resentment do not care about the Speaker of the House, because the Speaker of the House isn’t the president. It’s that simple.

The irony is that Republicans will care when (assuming the Democrats take the House) the Democrats become a thorn in the president’s side. They will care once Fox News* has something to rub up against. (That is not presently the case.) This will be especially true if Pelosi greenlights investigations into Trump’s corruption. This will be even more true if Pelosi greenlights impeachment proceedings (a big if).

But as I said before, voters are retrospective, not prospective*. Republican voters won’t care about Pelosi until it’s too late. By then, they’ll have bigger worries.


  • *The Times’ Paul Krugman wrote Monday, in “Who’s Afraid of Nancy Pelosi?” that “this seems like a good time to remind everyone that Pelosi is by far the greatest speaker of modern times and surely ranks among the most impressive people ever to hold that position.” He added: “It’s probably also worth noting that Pelosi has been untouched by allegations of personal scandal, which is amazing given the right’s ability to manufacture such allegations out of thin air.”

  • *Per CNN: “Through June, Pelosi had raised an eye-popping $83 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2018 election cycle, more than double the next closest Democrat …. A source briefed on the matter said that through July she had raised nearly $91 million for the party committee.”

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  • *From the Sacramento Bee editorial, “Dear Nancy Pelosi: It’s not about you, it’s about your party and country. Forget being speaker”: “If she truly believes what she says about how important it is for Democrats to retake the House so they can stop Trump, she must accept that it can’t be with her as speaker.”

  • *The most credible intra-party threat to Pelosi’s hold on power, it seems to me, comes from James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat. He’s been in the leadership for years and isn’t getting any younger. (He’s 78.) Even if you like Clyburn, as I did, you can’t help seeing that he can taste power, it’s so close, when he says: “If the opportunity is there I would absolutely do it,” adding that the ascension of a black speaker would “put to bed forever the notion that the Democratic caucus is taking black voters for granted.”

  • *Expect lots of this from Fox.

  • *As I wrote last week in “Will ‘Save the President’ Work? Probably Not”: “Those are terms from political science. In brief, they mean people make balloting decisions based on past events rather future possibilities.”

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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