He Huffed and He Puffed, and SHE Blew His Wall Down

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

When Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union Message tonight, he will be doing it in Nancy Pelosi’s House.

The first faceoff between President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi clearly demonstrated who is the amateur and who is the pro in Washington’s political arena. The Speaker took The Donald to the woodshed as the President and Congressional Republicans ended the latest federal government shutdown with a whimper and some false bravado. It is too early to bury Trump’s border wall, but its fate is still highly uncertain.

For Californians, Pelosi’s schooling of the President comes as no surprise. Far from the raving liberal ideologue that GOP campaigners portray her as, Nancy Pelosi is first and foremost a savvy political player who knows how to count votes, lead her colleagues, and keep cool under fire. Unlike Donald Trump, she knows the ins and outs of Capitol Hill. Unlike Donald Trump, she has, so far, held a steady course in Washington and hasn’t flip flopped; her word can be trusted. Pelosi knows when to hold them and when to fold them.

“Nancy,” as the President calls her, grew up in the hard scrabble Democratic politics of Baltimore, where her father and brother both served as Mayor. Maryland is a place where politics is definitely not beanbag. Pelosi built her own political career in San Francisco, where Phil and John Burton, former Mayor George Moscone and Willie Brown plied their trade.  Politics in the City by the Bay isn’t beanbag, either.

A master fund-raiser, Pelosi quarterbacked the effort which resulted in a resounding Democratic electoral victory in 2018 and restored the party’s control of the House of Representatives. Even as some newbies and disgruntled backbenchers called for new leadership, she adroitly put together the votes in her caucus that returned her to the Speakership. With a velvet glove, a bit of wheeling and dealing and a certain amount of tough love, she solidified her leadership position and unified the Democratic caucus in the process.

For his first two years in office, Trump had the advantage of GOP majorities in both the House and Senate. The ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus held sway in the House and Republican incumbents in both the Senate and House were vulnerable to challenges in closed primaries dominated by Trump voters and played nice with the President.

Now the 2018 elections are history and Freedom Caucus conservatives have been relegated to the back benches.

Even with Republicans controlling the White House and a Congress in fear of crossing the GOP base, the Trump agenda didn’t get that far. Thanks to then-Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a tax reform bill was enacted without much heavy lifting by Trump or the White House. A wave of conservative judges, including Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, were confirmed—no small thing–thanks to Senator McConnell.

Now, the Trump Administration must deal with a united Democratic House led by Speaker Pelosi. Given the President’s high disapproval ratings among Democrats and independents, Democratic lawmakers have no fear of taking on Trump. One of Pelosi’s challenges will be to keep a tight rein on her caucus, in order to avert an impeachment stampede that could very well backfire.

And GOP incumbents, reading Trump’s imploding numbers and eyeing the up-coming 2020 elections—with Trump, probably, on the ballot–are in danger of growing a spine. The President may find that his Republican colleagues in Congress are not so willing to play nice any more.

As the shutdown debacle illustrated, Pelosi and company are not about to be bullied by this president. At the halfway mark of his first—and possibly only—term as President, Donald Trump may have hit a huge, concrete wall.

 

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