Pelosi Finds ‘Sweet Spot’ Navigating Virus, Trump Challenges

Nancy Pelosi faced an uncertain future when she took office as speaker last year, after moderate Democrats clamored for younger leadership and progressives questioned her commitment to a liberal agenda.

With the next election less than six months off, Pelosi (D-Calif.) has dispelled any lingering doubts among House Democrats as she leads her party to address the nation’s worst public-health crisis in more than a century and succeeds like few politicians in out-maneuvering President Donald Trump.

“Nancy has found her perfect spot, her sweet spot,” Rep. Gerry Connolly(D-Va. ) said in an interview. “She clearly has the overwhelming confidence of our caucus” and is “steely in her will and determination.”

Pelosi’s political skills will be tested even more this year — as Trump and Republicans in Congress resist Democrats’ demands for a speedy fiscal rescue of cash-strapped states and municipalities, and as her party seeks to win back the White House and the Senate while retaining a comfortable majority in the House.

The speaker must balance the concerns of 29 moderates running in districts that Trump carried in 2016 with demands from liberals for more aggressive action to protect workers either idled by the pandemic or who perform jobs that put them at risk of exposure. A warning signal to Pelosi was the defection of 13 centrist Democrats, mostly freshmen, on the $3 trillion stimulus measure (H.R. 6800.) the House passed on March 15 and Republicans declared dead on arrival in the Senate.

Still, Democratic lawmakers and strategists credit the speaker’s consolidation of power with her success at taking on Trump, imposing message discipline, and broadening the coronavirus relief packages enacted by Congress to reflect her party’s priorities.

“She has been very good at getting buy-in from all of the members, even those who have problems, who believe they aren’t getting everything they want,’’ said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, who was a leadership aide when Pelosi was last speaker, from 2007 to 2011.

(Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Her domination of the airwaves with almost daily cable TV interviews has raised the profile of the Democrats’ legislative agenda by eclipsing Republican congressional leaders and countering Trump’s use of the White House as an election-year bully pulpit, especially as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden remains sidelined from campaigning.

“She is controlling the narrative,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker.

TV Regular

Pelosi is a regular weekday guest on cable TV. She made 10 appearances in the first two weeks of May, including a sit-down interview with C-SPAN.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy(R-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can’t claim the same attention as Pelosi, who “speaks with the authority of a person who’s third in line of succession to the president,” Baker said.

“It’s very, very hard to win a messaging battle from the minority in the House,” said GOP strategist Michael Steel, who was press secretary to former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But he noted that “House Republicans have done an excellent job leveraging a unified front’’ to “prevent Speaker Pelosi from adding an unrelated liberal wish list of big government programs to the coronavirus response.”

Republicans have used Pelosi as a foil in TV ads for more than a decade, and 2020 is no different. One TV appearance spawned an attack ad from Trump’s re-election campaign, which cast her as an out-of-touch, wealthy liberal. It cross-cut between scenes of jobless Americans and Pelosi showing the ice-cream stash in her San Francisco kitchen freezer to comedian James Corden. It concluded with the quote, “Let them eat ice cream.”

Pelosi counterattacked by mocking Trump’s musings about using household disinfectants to fight COVID-19.

Back in Majority

To regain the speakership after eight years as minority leader, Pelosi knocked down a revolt by members who argued she should give way to a younger generation of leaders.

But any sentiment that Pelosi, who turned 80 in March, was too old and entrenched “faded once she started winning the debates with Trump,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Pelosi agreed to limit her second tenure as speaker to no more than four years to secure support from a faction of moderates who claimed they could withhold enough votes to prevent her first-ballot election as speaker by the full House.

One of the former dissidents, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), said in a statement that
Pelosi “continues to uphold her commitment to provide more opportunities for professional development and leadership training for a younger generation of leaders.”

Some of the progressive members aren’t always satisfied that their long-term goals are being fulfilled. But Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was the only Democrat to vote against a stimulus package (Public Law 116-139) the House passed on April 23. And Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash), who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was the group’s only member to vote against the $3 trillion stimulus measure.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), a centrist who opposed the package, said in a statement that it wasn’t focused on bipartisan measures and “was rushed to a vote too fast.” Earlier this week, Lamb, one of a dozen Democrats who voted against Pelosi for speaker, distanced himself from her with a Twitter post to rebut false charges by Trump and others that he had broken his campaign pledge to oppose Pelosi for the top House leadership post.

“These people have been lying about my record since the day I became a candidate,’’ Lamb said.

Mindful of Moderates

To keep the Democrats’ House majority this fall, Pelosi is mindful of the political interests of moderate members crucial to the party winning control of the chamber in 2018, Democrats said. She proceeded with impeachment efforts against Trump only after getting the support of some of these most vulnerable members.

The speaker “has been protective of them and responsive” when they seek changes to legislation, said Democratic strategist Kristen Hawn, who was the moderate Blue Dog Coalition’s political adviser when Pelosi was last speaker.

In the latest package, she included a bipartisan proposal to expand a tax credit that would encourage businesses to retain workers, at the urging of Blue Dog Chair Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.). Such concessions give moderates “something they can go back to their districts and talk about,” Hawn said. “She gives members the room to do what they need to do to win.”

Pelosi has shown she can beat Trump, thwarting his attempt during a 35-day government shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019 to get $5.7 billion from Congress to build his U.S.-Mexico border wall. The president was forced to re-open the government and eventually settled for almost $1.4 billion to build 55 miles of border fence in Texas.

Going forward, Hawn said she would “never underestimate her to get things done.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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