After overhaul passage, Republicans turn their ire toward Pelosi

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; 3:44 PM

In the wake of the passage of the health-care overhaul, Republicans have turned their ire toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) almost as much as President Obama, looking to rally their supporters against a political figure less popular than the president.

GOP officials, and particularly the Republican National Committee, have repeatedly highlighted Pelosi's role in pushing through the legislation. The RNC has raised more than $1.5 million through a "Fire Pelosi" online petition that features imagery of Pelosi being engulfed in flames and the slogan "No More Madam Speaker." Another RNC appeal to GOP supporters dubs 14 members of the House, most of whom backed the health-care law, as "Pelosi's Puppets."

When she campaigned alongside Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week, Sarah Palin attacked the "Obama-Pelosi-Reid" agenda. The National Republican Congressional Committee has launched ads in the districts of five House Democrats who switched from opposing the health-care bill in November to backing the final version, decrying them for being "unable to stand up to Obama and Pelosi."

Republicans attacked Pelosi in both 2006 and 2008 but watched as Democrats made huge gains in Congress both years. But GOP officials this year say that in addition to the changed political climate because of the economy, attacking Pelosi will be more effective this November because she is more widely known and disliked among voters.

In a recent Washington-Post poll, Obama's approval rating stood at 53 percent, and 43 percent of voters disapproved of his performance; 42 percent of voters approved of Pelosi's performance while 46 percent disapproved.

Those numbers are part of a gradual decline in popularity for Pelosi, whom just 25 percent of voters disapproved of in 2007, just after she became speaker. And although Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) -- with 47 percent disapproval -- is as unpopular as Pelosi, a quarter of voters have "no opinion" of him, while only 12 percent said that of Pelosi, suggesting she is the better known of the Democratic congressional leaders.

"The speaker has become a lightning-rod with near-universal name ID in every district, which helps in reminding voters that Democrats own Washington's problems from the White House on down," said Ken Spain, NRCC communications director.

Jennifer Crider, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said "this is a strategy that Republicans have tried for years and failed with."

Republicans were criticized last year for an online video that compared Pelosi to Bond girl Pussy Galore from the 1964 film "Goldfinger." But when asked whether she thought the focus on Pelosi was about her sex, Stephanie Schriock, head of the group Emily List, which raises money for female Democratic congressional candidates who support abortion rights, said that "it was really about how the process played out," noting the House was where the health-care debate ended.

The attacks from the right come as Democrats and some nonpartisan observers heaped praise on Pelosi for her role in pushing through the health-care bill. At the signing of changes to the health-care legislation and student loan practices on Tuesday, President Obama called her "amazing." Emily's List started its own pro-Pelosi petition to contrast the RNC's attacks, saying "we know how effective she is -- and the GOP knows it, too."

The Economist described her in a recent article as "arguably the most powerful woman in American history," while an opinion piece in The Washington Post on Sunday declared, "Why did health-care reform pass? Nancy Pelosi was in charge."

Unlike Reid, who could lose his Senate seat this fall, Pelosi is highly unlikely to be defeated in her San Francisco-based district, where she won 72 percent of the vote in 2008.

But Republicans say tying Democratic candidates to Pelosi and her tactics could help them win control of the House in this fall's elections, providing a foil for voters who might have backed Obama in 2008 and remain supportive of him but are unhappy with Washington.

"I have said, if passing this bill means I have to walk out of my office that night, it would be with the greatest pride," Pelosi said in an interview last week on PBS, when asked whether passing the health-care legislation could cost Democrats control of the House and her the speakership.

But running against congressional leaders in general is rarely effective. In 2006, Republicans linked Democratic candidates to Pelosi, and Democrats attacked GOP candidates for backing then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), but the Iraq War, the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and allegations of corruption by individual members of Congress -- including of DeLay -- played much more dominant roles in determining how people voted.

Nonetheless, Pelosi is likely to appear in GOP Republican fundraising appeals and ads until November. The House speaker turned 70 last Friday, and the RNC sent its members a poem commemorating the occasion, with a fundraising appeal at the bottom of course.

"Congratulations, you pushed it through," the poem starts, referring to the health-care bill. "Gamed the process and the CBO too!" It ends ""For kickbacks and gimmicks, budgets un-clipped, We give you this special birthday pink slip."

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