There are dumb, trivial stories, and then there’s the story of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to a hair salon, during which she apparently took her mask off her face while getting her hair washed. If you’re a consumer of conservative media, you would have thought this earth-shattering scandal was about as important as D-Day or the moon landing, such was the blanket coverage it received.
Your favorite Fox News hosts ranted about it. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany began her Thursday briefing by vowing to play video of it on a loop for reporters, which she then did. Newt Gingrich wrote a column titled “Here’s why Pelosi’s blowout could lead to a blowout election,” on foxnews.com, vowing a “profound impact” on elections at all levels. At one point, 13 of the top-performing links on Facebook, and four of the top five, were about this urgent issue.
But here’s the thing: All that is for the rubes. The Fox News watchers, the Facebook conspiracy sharers, the Republican base that demands an endless stream of things to be outraged about. It’s a performance even the people engaged in it know is nothing more.
At the very same time, Blake Hounshell of Politico reports, Republican candidates have almost stopped railing against Pelosi altogether. In the 2018 elections, by one count, more than 130,000 House and Senate ads mentioned her, but now, "just 44 ads have mentioned Pelosi by name so far this cycle, by our ad tracker’s count, and the vast bulk of those came in GOP primaries.”
So while Pelosi remains a hate-object in conservative media — and in President Trump’s Twitter feed, which is much the same thing — those Republicans actually trying to win elections no longer see anything to gain by shaking their fists at her.
If you’ve been watching American politics for the past few years, you know what a surprising development that is. In election after election, every Republican running for Congress in any state could be counted on to charge their opponent with being a puppet of “San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi” and her radical agenda.
But the party as a whole seems to have decided that, as a practical matter, those attacks have become almost pointless.
It’s not that they don’t still despise her, or know that their base still despises her. But a number of factors may be combining to reduce the impact she has as a symbol of everything Republicans want you to fear.
First, in the age of Trump, the idea that you’re going to get people worked up over Pelosi just doesn’t hold much water, since they’re already worked up about so much else. Second, for the past couple of years Pelosi has been in conflict with the left side of the Democratic Party — having low-level squabbles with charismatic young House Democrats, resisting impeachment and certainly not pushing ahead with the more radical parts of the progressive agenda. Thirty-three years after being elected to the House, she has become almost a moderate.
And while the president uses his Twitter feed to toss juvenile insults at “Crazy Nancy,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin quietly negotiates with her to avoid a government shutdown when funds run out at the end of September — negotiations that, from what we can tell, the president is not involved in at all. Which may be why they seem to be proving successful.
Whatever small amount of good will that exists between Pelosi and the White House may not be enough, however, to produce another round of stimulus. After a reasonably good jobs report Friday, Republicans inclined to do nothing more to help the U.S. economy will be only more willing to say their work is done, despite the fact that tens of millions of Americans remain out of work. Pelosi probably won’t be able to persuade them otherwise.
But the next time you see some talk show host (or the president) pretending to be angry at Pelosi, remember that it’s just an act. They’ve done it for so long, they can run it on autopilot. But even they know that when it comes to actually moving votes or accomplishing any of their real goals, it’s a waste of time.