The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What Republican attacks on Nancy Pelosi are really about

Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Why do Republicans hate Nancy Pelosi so much? It’s not a difficult question to answer — at least it wouldn’t be, if we could bring ourselves to be honest about it.

Just as they have for the past 15 years, Republicans are running ads around the country trying to convince voters that Pelosi is reason enough not to vote for any Democrat, so horrifyingly evil is she. But when you ask them what exactly their problem with Pelosi is, they end up saying ridiculous things like this:

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said GOP officials saw no evidence in Ohio that Pelosi attacks have lost their potency.
“When Nancy Pelosi becomes a central part of the discussion in any race, that is something we’re winning on because we’re not just talking about her, we’re talking about her policies,” Hunt said. […]
But Republicans say that, in the eyes of voters, Pelosi’s name is shorthand for extreme liberal policies — even those she does not personally support.

Yes, that’s what Republican voters are thinking when they hear Pelosi’s name: policy! It’s all about issues.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

Just like Republican voter-suppression tactics are really about the integrity of the ballot, laws imposing draconian regulations on abortion clinics are really about protecting women’s health, and when President Trump attacks football players and LeBron James and Maxine Waters, it has nothing to do with race.

President Trump insulted NBA player LeBron James’s intelligence in a tweet Aug. 3. It’s not the first time Trump has taken this approach. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Can we stop treating this lie seriously once and for all? We all know what’s really going on. The Republican attack on Pelosi is about conservative identity politics, full stop. It’s partly the same kind of ugly misogyny that has driven conservatives for years, and that comes out whenever the prospect of a woman wielding genuine power rears its head. Women who display ambition are judged harshly, particularly by conservatives; it’s no accident that Bernie Sanders, whose policy ideas are much more opposed to conservatism than Pelosi’s, inspires nothing like the venomous loathing on the right that Pelosi and Hillary Clinton do.

And it’s partly the us-versus-them conflict that has animated every Republican campaign for a half century. Democrats, they tell voters, aren’t like us. They don’t share our values; they’re elitist and alien and threatening. Those ideas can be expressed through issues, but what they’re about is cultural affinity: The Republican candidate is one of us, and the Democratic candidate is one of them.

Unfortunately, many reporters fall into the trap of believing the ludicrous claim that the attacks on Pelosi are at bottom disputes about whether there should be more tax cuts or what kind of health care system we should have, just as they believe that if the GOP is airing a thousand ads attacking Pelosi, then it must be working. Yet, there’s no evidence for that either. If you ask for such evidence, the answer that you’ll get is, “Well don’t you remember that race that the Democrat lost after Republicans ran all those ads featuring his picture alongside Pelosi’s?”

Yes, we do. But there have also been plenty of races in which identical ads were aired, and the Democrat ended up winning.

Why does the former constitute evidence, but the latter doesn’t? When Republicans air ads criticizing Pelosi in a House race and lose, for some reason we don’t see stories headlined, “Attacks on Pelosi Fall Flat.” Those races — and there are lots of them — are just assumed to have turned on some other issue. But if the Republican happens to win, then the assumption is that the ads were devastatingly effective, and Pelosi was the reason the Democratic candidate lost.

Oh, but aren’t her approval ratings terrible? Indeed they are, almost entirely because she is universally reviled by Republicans, who watch Fox News and listen to conservative talk radio, where they imbibe a constant stream of attacks against her. But what you may not know is that the most unpopular congressional leader in America is not Pelosi but Mitch McConnell. How many Republican Senate candidates have been quizzed aggressively about whether they’ll support McConnell to lead their caucus and whether voters will reject them if they do?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that whether Pelosi will continue to lead House Democrats after this election isn’t a worthy topic of discussion. More than 50 Democratic candidates have said they’ll be supporting someone else (even if no viable challenger has yet emerged) to lead their caucus. But as The Post’s David Weigel (who has been on the ground covering more House races than probably any reporter in America) points out, when Democratic candidates have said they won’t be supporting Pelosi for speaker, it’s almost never about ideology. Instead, they say the time has come for a new generation of leadership (Pelosi and her top deputies are all in their 70s). It’s telling that many of the candidates who have taken that position, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, are to Pelosi’s left on issues.

So, if Pelosi does end up losing her bid to lead the Democrats, it will have nothing to do with policy. The truth is that despite some differences here and there, right now, the Democratic Party is remarkably unified on issues. Their agenda is going to be basically the same no matter who is the speaker (if they win control of the House) or the minority leader (if they don’t).

Republicans will continue to attack Pelosi from now until November, because they have few better ideas for how to convince voters to send them back to Congress. In some places it might work to get their base to the polls; more often, in all likelihood, it won’t. But either way, we shouldn’t buy for a second that the reason they do it is because they’re trying to say something about policy.