The Second Coming of Nancy Pelosi

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

As we celebrate the new year—if that is an apt description— the non-stop spate of ugly news emanating from Washington is sure to dampen spirits.

I would suggest that the biggest story going into 2019—though not quite equal to the non-stop revelations of crimes that may have been committed by this Administration—is the re-ascendancy of California’s Nancy Pelosi as the once and future House Speaker.

It is no overstatement to say that the fate of both and that of their parties will be inseparably intertwined with the fate of the nation hanging partially in the balance.

Her age—she is 78—which had many shrewd observers predicting her demise—turned out to be of little consequence, and her steely disposition combined with political skills honed over many decades makes her formidable.

The President of the United States has already found that out!

In a remarkable on-camera, no-holds-barred rumble a few weeks ago, televised real-time from the Oval Office, Speaker-to-be Pelosi with Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer of New York also in a leading role, duked it out with the leader of the free world.

Vice President, Mike Pence, looked on in stone silence displaying only a few body twitches as the surreal drama played out.

While this was hardly a 15-rounder most observers gave the decision to Pelosi on points. Invariably there will be return matches before a title bout that might come even before the next elections depending upon fast-moving developments in Washington.

Aside from the satisfaction it gives his supporters which may be the principal goal, whether Trump would want to go more rounds in full public viewing with such a battle-tested opponent is subject to question.

Given his love for attention, he might do so anyway even against the advice of a dwindling number of trusted advisors in his inner circle. My guess is Pelosi would not hesitate to accept the offer.

Trump’s job rating is among the lowest in history for any president at this mid-term juncture. These performances will not enhance it.

From this observer’s seat, the typically well-coiffed, well-mannered and tenacious San Franciscan who already shattered the glass ceiling as the nation’s only woman Speaker and will become the first to regain the gavel since 1955—usually gives as good or better than she gets.

After Trump insisted he had the votes in both the House and Senate to get a bill passed that will include funding for his Wall, Pelosi looking straight in his eyes said bluntly, “Mr. President you do not know what you are talking about.”

That’s not the kind of language Trump is accustomed to hearing from others let alone those he considers his inferiors, and it is apparently especially galling when coming from a woman.

Trump seems to forget that Congress is an equal branch of government and Pelosi is sure to continue reminding him of that fact.

Pelosi is probably the last person the acclaimed master maker of the deal wants to contend with as he struggles to find some footing in a beleaguered presidency.

WALLS (OR FENCES) ARE A NO-NO!

After insisting repeatedly that Mexico will pick up the tab, Trump continues to press Congress for $5 billion in taxpayer funds to build it but his pleadings have come to naught.

The shutdown persists with little to indicate that some deal is anywhere near and 800,000 very unhappy employees are still without a pay check.

Even partial payment for the wall –an offer previously put on the table and rejected without movement to solve the ongoing immigrant crisis— is a non-starter. Stronger border security could get Democrat votes but walls, fences and other types of barriers will not sell.

Trump’s bravado will have minimal influence as the Democratic Party takes control of the House, and even less so with the influx of new members itching for battle who are sure to follow Pelosi’s lead.

In short, for the first time in his presidency, the House will now serve as a check on some of Trump’s biggest ambitions.

Pelosi solidified her position by volunteering to give herself only two more terms accepting the fact that one day she must move on.

Her persuasiveness combined with prodigious fund-raising skills—she is the current record-holder among all Speakers Democrat or Republican—gives her a decisive edge against any would-be challengers and with the “me too” movement in full bloom, she could be just about invincible.

Under unremitting pressure from the far-right Freedom Caucus, Republicans have seen several Speakers come and go when they were in the majority with the current one, Paul Ryan, on his way out too.

Pelosi will be wary of conceding too much control to the fresh-faced Progressives in her party who are 40-strong. But unlike their conservative Tea Party counterparts, they are likely to be accepting of more discipline if she includes them in the decision-making process and it helps to thwart a rouge president.

THE PARTIES FACE DIFFERENT CHALLENGES

It is a different story for Republicans.

Bakersfield Representative, Kevin McCarthy, will become his party’s chief spokesperson as the new minority leader. He faces continuing opposition from the Tea Party spoilers which may force him to find common cause with the Democrats in order to claim any victories at all in the coming session.

Since the GOP paid the larger price in the last elections even when it was in the driver’s seat, repeated obstructionism with no plausible alternatives may no longer be an option.

Of course, this might require making choices that run afoul of the desires of the unpredictable Commander-in-Chief who shows little appetite for compromise.

But if his popularity numbers continue to tank and particularly if the economy goes into a slump and the market does continues its step decline Trump may find it more appealing to cut some deals that Democrats could buy into with which Republicans would be willing to go along.

Or Trump could already be beyond the pale and prepared to throw all remaining caution to the winds even at the risk of disavowing the benefits of cooperation if he believes his make-it-up-as-you-go approach is the best way to salvage his imperiled presidency.

If Republican leaders grow less enamored of Trump’s bellicose ways, simply out of fear for their own careers they might muster the courage to restrain his worst impulses before the darkening shadows descending on this Administration overtake them as well.

It was a few such influential voices that finally brought down Richard Nixon — who, though he broke laws ultimately put a modicum of respect for the office first and bowed to party demands realizing all was lost. This president may feel he has nothing to lose.

Pelosi’s challenge is of a different kind. Newly empowered, Democrats will have less excuse if they cannot deliver but could also face a backlash if they proceed without any restraint.

One of the principal roles of Speaker is to reduce the number of casualties in each election. That task could become more complicated if Pelosi cannot rein in some of her party’s more vocal impeachment proponents before the voters are prepared for such drastic action.

Chief among them is California Democrat, Rep. Maxine Waters, who will be chairing the House Finance Committee and New York’s Jerry Nadler set to head the powerful Judiciary Committee. Both are eager to begin issuing subpoenas.

Other Californians ready to play pivotal roles are L.A. County Rep. Adam Schiff who will chair the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Alameda County Rep. Eric Swalwell, who is openly considering a presidential run.

Pelosi is urging a go-slower approach advising that the Special Prosecutor investigation be allowed to run its course while keeping a watchful eye on what Trump’s incoming Attorney General replacement, William Barr, might do to quash the investigation.

Barr is already on record challenging the validity of the Mueller inquiry. This could provide extra ammunition for a bill the Democrats plan on immediately introducing to give additional protection to the independence of the Special Prosecutor. The Senate might also go along with it.

However, Democrats should be mindful of what happened after Republicans succeeded in impeaching President Bill Clinton 20 years ago. It only helped to boost his popularity, Democrats gained seats in the 1998 mid-terms, and Clinton was ultimately re-elected. Some historians think the GOP may have over-reached.

This is a cautionary tale which the Trump partisans are sure to remember as they plot ways to hold on to the Oval Office ion 2020.

Pelosi, herself an acute student of history, was in Congress at the time though Bill Clinton was not doing his best to undermine the entire system of justice, jeopardize much of the national security apparatus, and otherwise defile the institution of the presidency itself.

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