Barely three months into her second turn in charge, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already mapped out a plan to overwhelm Republicans in the 2020 elections.
It’s a remarkably bold guarantee for Pelosi, who will celebrate this new majority’s 100-day mark at a Democratic retreat next week outside Leesburg. Her caucus has had its share of growing pains in the first quarter of the year, with younger, more-liberal Democrats trying to push Pelosi’s leadership team as far to the left as possible.
A small but vocal faction of newcomers sparked a bitter debate over the party’s long-standing support of Israel. And a growing Democratic presidential primary field is advancing policies that are out of step with a couple dozen freshman Democrats who won swing seats in districts that favored President Trump in the 2016 election.
At the center of this storm sits Pelosi, 79, back where she ruled the House for four years last decade. Her office is assembled almost exactly the way she left it in 2010, a set of four chairs in a circle by the fireplace serving as the central nervous system for House Democrats. Through the window is a view of the Mall.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Pelosi acknowledged that the job now is different from her first go-round, most notably because President Trump is such a different personality than Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But, she also notes, the rise of social media has transformed politics since her last tenure, allowing newcomers to become instant stars in a way that she could not imagine when she arrived in the Capitol 32 years ago.
She considers her biggest mistake during her first stint as speaker was allowing Republicans to relentlessly attack her and her policy achievements such as the Affordable Care Act without any coordinated pushback. Democrats lost a staggering 63 seats and the majority in the 2010 midterms, leaving Pelosi’s public image battered for years to come.
“I was in this office, but I didn’t — I didn’t — relish being speaker. I relished the power of legislative accomplishments,” she said. “I didn’t see a public role.”
In 2018, she became her own biggest advocate, touting her insider expertise in a campaign to reclaim her old job as Republicans ran what her office estimates were 137,000 ads warning voters about the danger of “Speaker Nancy Pelosi.” Democratic candidates were given free rein to criticize her, inoculating themselves from the GOP campaign and leading to a net gain of 40 seats.
She reclaimed the speaker’s gavel midway through a 35-day partial government shutdown and won a clear victory over Trump in his demand for border-wall funding. Her mocking clap toward Trump during the State of the Union address became a viral moment that completed her return to being liberal heroine, a status that had begun to fade over eight previous years of defeat for House Democrats.
But her posture in the first 100 days has been anything but wild-eyed liberal. Fifteen Democrats did not vote for her in the Jan. 3 roll call for speaker, but several now praise her for taming the more liberal indulgences of the caucus.
“Don’t mistake not voting for her and not having a great, deep respect and admiration for her skills and talents and her pragmatism,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), one of her sharpest critics. “This is where, I think, her experience comes in handy. Because she has been around, she knows how this place functions.”
In the interview, Pelosi dismissed the far left’s Medicare-for-all as a still emerging proposal that might provide worse health care than the landmark 2010 law she muscled through Congress. She backed up the decision of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to “black list” any consulting firm that works for candidates mounting primary challenges to incumbents, a move that has drawn calls from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who rose to fame defeating a 20-year Democrat, to boycott donating to the DCCC.
And Pelosi rejected the idea that today’s Democrats are further to the left than a decade ago, suggesting that it was “just a few people” with high profiles and some of the “presidentials.”
Instead, she has charted a course of again appealing to moderate suburbanites and some rural voters frustrated by Trump’s reality-TV-style presidency. She doesn’t want to focus on impeaching Trump or on far-fetched legislation that has no hope of passing in divided government. She promises not to repeat the mistakes leading up to 2010.
“You cannot let your opponents characterize — mischaracterize — what you’re about. So, what was missing from that was a strong messaging piece, and that’s what we had in this last election,” she said.
Republicans have mocked the new majority as a Congress focused on nonbinding resolutions, not real policy. There was the resolution to disapprove of the Justice Department’s legal opposition to the ACA and a resolution to condemn almost every form of hate.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) cited Pelosi’s oft-repeated line that budgets are about values, noting that Democrats are not offering a budget proposal. “They have no budget,” McCarthy said. “Does that mean they have no values?”
But Pelosi believes her endangered incumbents are shoring themselves up through a steady diet of town halls. And leadership is particularly pushing the freshmen running their first reelection to raise as much money as possible.
By Thanksgiving, if all goes according to her plan, potential GOP challengers will “think twice” about running against Democrats. And then she will deliver a stern warning to Republicans who remain in swing seats.
“We fully intend to win this election, and some of you are vulnerable. It’s going to cost you millions of dollars, to win or lose. And if you win — say you win — you’re in the minority, probably want to teach at the university,” Pelosi said, drawing out every syllable like the daughter of a Baltimore mayor who watched her father stare down rivals. “So we get the A-team, and they get the retirements. That’s my plan.”
It’s quite a turnabout from less than two years ago, June 2017, when Democrats lost a special election in the Atlanta suburbs amid a flurry of anti-Pelosi ads. Calls for her to step aside grew louder, but she stuck to her plan, and last November, Democrats won that seat in their landslide victory.
Now, the ousted Republican, Karen Handel, is running again. Except this time, in the opening video, Pelosi’s image appeared only for a split second. Republicans might be moving on to other Democratic villains after the speaker’s comeback.
“Self-promotion is a terrible thing,” Pelosi said, “but somebody’s got to do it.”