Speaker Nancy Pelosi…Again?

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

Even as Democrats appear to be poised to regain a majority in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, now the House Minority Leader, has emerged as the political punching bag of 2018.  She is taking heat from all sides.  Republicans revile her as “a San Francisco liberal” who will lead America down the path to socialism.  GOP candidates in hot U.S. House and Senate races are busy tying their Democratic opponents to Pelosi, in ads and fundraising e-mails. (For example, a recent fundraising e-mail from Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), the only Republican running for reelection from a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, pleads for conservatives’ support to trounce “my Democratic opponent, Nancy Pelosi’s puppet, Jacky Rosen.”)

On the other end of the political spectrum, Berniecrats think she is too centrist and a cadre of first-time Democratic House candidates and young Congressional backbenchers want Pelosi and her veteran “Establishment “cohorts to step aside and make room for a new generation of party leaders.  A large and diverse group of Democratic aspirants, hoping to claim GOP seats that Trump carried in 2016, are either pledging not to vote for Pelosi as Speaker or are dancing around the issue.

None of this is particularly surprising, despite her success in herding the Democratic cats in the House for roughly the past 15 years—and in helping the DCCC raise boatloads of campaign cash.

Pelosi is a master vote-counter and a prodigious fund-raiser—the top prerequisites for party leadership. She led House Democrats back to majority status in 2006 after more than a decade in the minority and spearheaded the sausage-making that produced the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

She learned hardball politics in Baltimore, MD, where her family was deeply involved in the city’s rough-and-tumble political and civic life. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., served for five terms in Congress, before becoming the mayor of Baltimore for 12 years.  Her brother, Thomas D’Alesandro III, also served as mayor of Baltimore.

Her fund-raising prowess is right out of the California playbook, written by legendary Assembly Speakers Jesse Unruh and Willie Brown and carried to Washington by Congressmen Phil Burton, Henry Waxman and other Golden State lawmakers.

By centralizing fund-raising in the Speaker’s office, Democrats Unruh and Brown kept a tight rein on their leadership positions in Sacramento.   Democrats Burton and Waxman actively raised money for their Congressional colleagues—in California and elsewhere—and positioned themselves to win support within their own caucus, as they vied for leadership positions and key committee chairmanships.  Nancy Pelosi has carried on that tradition. (Politico reports that, so far in this election cycle, Pelosi has raised “about half of every dollar that comes into the DCCC”—and we’re talkin’ about $191 million total.)

For years, California Republicans tried to make Willie Brown an issue in more conservative swing districts (when such things existed).  For the most part, the GOP failed to topple the Democratic hold on the Assembly and it seems unlikely that demonizing Nancy Pelosi will be all that persuasive in a mid-term election that appears to be shaping up as a referendum on Donald Trump.

Unrest within the Democratic Caucus may be more uncomfortable for Pelosi than Republican attacks, as ambitious pols are impatient to move up the ladder to the top spots held by Pelosi and her septuagenarian compatriots.  The youngest of the Democratic caucus’ big four—Xavier Becerra—bailed out to become California’s Attorney General and his successor as caucus chair—Joseph Crowley—was upset in his own primary last month.

In the end, most observers expect Nancy Pelosi to once again become Speaker, if a blue wave sweeps Democrats back into the majority this November.  She has too many outstanding chits among her colleagues and that Midas touch when it comes to fund-raising.

Pelosi recently told the New York Times that she was “deliberately building a ‘bridge’ to a new generation of party leader.” The real questions are: Who lands on “the other side [of] the bridge” and when?

It remains to be seen whether Pelosi will be able to orchestrate her leave from the Democratic leadership on her own terms and timetable.

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