According to lore or rumor, some ancient tribes used to place the old people on an ice floe and shove them into the frigid ocean. Whether this is true, I know not, but it is essentially what some 16 House Democrats want to do with Nancy Pelosi. Here the legend ends differently: She ain’t going.
Why she should be denied another term as speaker of the House is not entirely clear. One of those who wants Pelosi out is Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), who promised her constituents that she would oppose Pelosi as speaker, expounding her reasoning in a Post op-ed. It came down to this: She had promised her constituents she would do so. This is a tautology, not fresh thinking.
Oh, Rice had other reasons. It’s time for a change, she said. She used the hopeless word “hope.” A new generation needed to rise. Pelosi is “exceptionally experienced and knowledgeable,” Rice wrote, but others could do the job. I diligently read to the end of the piece. Rice named no one.
There are commanding institutional reasons why it is just plain dumb to dump Pelosi at this point. Such a move would push the House into chaos, which most Americans might think is just another word for the status quo, but it is not. Pelosi in the past has been an effective leader. The proof of that is the constant use by her opponents of the word “retribution.” If you strike at her and fail, you will be punished. This is how the House works when it works. This is how politics works.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Pelosi for three reasons. The first is that the ongoing pillorying of her is firmly rooted in sexism. A man would never have become the GOP’s perennial boogeyman (boogeyperson?). Longtime speakers become adorable icons. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), who said Ronald Reagan “knows less than any president I’ve ever met,” nevertheless got along famously with him, the two of them wallowing in Irish kitsch. The storied “Mister Sam” — Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas — served three times as speaker between 1940 and 1961 and escaped vilification. Lyndon B. Johnson used to kiss his bald pate.
Second, Pelosi represents San Francisco. Like New York, it has long been caricatured as the capital of un-American ideas and lifestyles. (There is no analogous city for conservatives — Tulsa? Lubbock, Tex.?) San Francisco was first disparaged in this way by Jeane Kirkpatrick at the 1984 Republican National Convention. She used the refrain “San Francisco Democrats” not merely because the party had recently held its convention there, but also because the City by the Bay had come to represent gaudy non-conformity — drug usage, free love and some pretty wonderful music. Kirkpatrick, who was Reagan’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could not easily be envisioned with a bong.
Third, Pelosi is a pure politician. It’s her life’s blood — literally. Her father was the mayor of Baltimore. Her brother was the mayor of Baltimore. They were both named Thomas — Big Tommy and Little Tommy, as they were known on the street. Baltimore, where I trespassed for The Post, was partly in the South, partly in the North, totally in the Democratic Party and a feast for a political reporter. It had clubs and alliances and curious folkways, such as the distribution of “walking-around money” on Election Day. Baltimore’s politics were shady and colorfully corrupt, but they taught the virtues of close contact, counting votes and the unassailable importance of loyalty.
The Democratic leadership of the House is old. Pelosi is 78, her No. 2, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, is 79, and James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking member, is the same age as Pelosi. The optics are poor, downright unappealing to some. This is a problem, and it is more of one because Pelosi is not only old, she is a woman. Years of incessant misogynistic attacks have fabricated Pelosi into a political version of some sort of Shakespearean crone. It’s appalling that some Democrats now give it credence.
That Rice felt obliged to essentially validate Republican slander and promise her Long Island constituents that she would oppose Pelosi speaks volumes about Rice and nothing at all about Pelosi. She has been a remarkably effective fundraiser and legislator who, among other things, salvaged Barack Obama’s reluctantly named Obamacare. Without her, it never would have become law.
Instead of genuflecting to Pelosi’s sad polls, it would have been downright bracing for Pelosi’s House critics to have stood up for her. The critics, not Pelosi, deserve the political ice floe.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.