Don't Mess with Nancy Pelosi

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill. 

Politics, Albert Einstein supposedly said, is more difficult than physics. It's full of uncontrolled variables, experiments impossible to repeat, and human beings in all their unpredictable cravenness, ambition, and ignorance. In our media-saturated age, when we call someone a good politician we're usually thinking of their charisma, their rhetorical skill, and their ability to win the affections of their constituents. The quieter work that goes on in back rooms is harder to see and therefore to judge.

Except at certain moments like this one. Nancy Pelosi, target of endless criticism and thousands upon thousands of attack ads, is showing what it means to be a good politician. While she hasn't yet guaranteed her place as the next speaker of the House, she is busily dismantling the rebellion she has faced in the last year or so, what appeared to be the most serious threat to her leadership in the 16 years she has led House Democrats. And in the process, she's showing why she's stuck around for so long.

As rebellions go, it has been pretty weak. A group of centrist Democrats led by Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts has long complained that Pelosi is the wrong face for the Democratic Party, that her status as a lightning rod for Republican attacks puts other Democrats in the awkward position of having to defend her in every election. So they decided to put everything they could into a leadership challenge.

Pelosi's opponents were heartened when numerous candidates in this year's election said they wouldn't support her when it came time to choose a Democratic speaker, or at least that they were disinclined to do so. Some of them were centrists, but some of those raising doubts were progressives who told voters that it's time for new leadership in the party.

But "It's time for new leadership" is just a slogan—neither a bill of particulars against Pelosi nor an alternative to her. And that was the biggest problem Pelosi's opponents had: They never came up with an alternative. Not only did they not have some vision of a different sort of party leadership, they never found someone to actually run against Pelosi. They put together a letter signed by 16 members demanding someone else as speaker, but none of them wanted to step forward themselves.

Then some of them suggested Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio as an alternative candidate, and Fudge said she was open to the idea—until she met with Pelosi. When the meeting was over, Fudge endorsed Pelosi and Pelosi announced that in the new Congress, Fudge will chair a newly created subcommittee on elections. It was classic transactional politics of the type that is often condemned, but also makes the wheels of politics turn.

Not long after, one of the signers of the letter, Representative Brian Higgins of New York, announced that he'd be backing Pelosi after all too, once she promised him that issues he cares about (infrastructure and a Medicare buy-in) would be prioritized in the next Congress and he'd take the lead on the Medicare issue.

Other members required ideological assurance more than assignments. Pelosi convinced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that the opposition was driven by centrists, and got the rising star's endorsement; "So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for speaker, she can count on my support," Ocasio-Cortez said. Another high-profile freshman who had been skeptical of Pelosi, Sharice Davids of Kansas, announced her support over the weekend. Then another member who had signed the letter pledging to vote against her, Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, backed off his opposition.

Pelosi still has more members to persuade, but the process she's undertaking is exactly what she has done for years when trying to assemble support for a key vote. She understands the position of all her members, talks to them, determines what their interests and feelings are, and figures out what will induce them to come over to her side. It's a task that requires systematic preparation and careful implementation.

One can't help but note the contrast with President Trump, who believes himself to be the world's greatest negotiator but is actually terrible at negotiating. He never thinks he needs to prepare and never puts in the effort to understand those he's trying to convince. He thought members of Congress were like plumbing contractors, and he could strong-arm them and then stiff them, and it would work out because he was the one with the power. He never bothered to figure out what their interests and incentives were, because he just didn't care.

Which is why again and again Trump either failed (like with getting his border wall or repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act) or just got played for a fool (like with North Korea). The only deal the master dealmaker managed to negotiate with the Republican Congress in two years was one to cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Getting them to do that is about as hard as convincing your dog to eat a steak; it doesn't exactly take a brilliant negotiator to accomplish.

There are plenty of criticisms one could make of Nancy Pelosi, and when some Democrats complain about having to deal every election season with a barrage of ads of her face morphing into theirs, they have a legitimate gripe. But as the 2018 election showed, those ads don't really work. The fact that Republicans hate her doesn't mean that other voters will oppose a Democrat just because of her.

The fact that Pelosi's opponents thought they could take her down with neither an alternative candidate nor a more compelling argument against her shows that they didn't seem to grasp who they were up against. This rebellion isn't over yet, but there's little doubt about which direction it's moving; it looks like Pelosi is going to beat it back using the same skills that made her one of the most effective congressional leaders in decades. As she herself says, "None of us is indispensable. But some of us are just better at our jobs than others."

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