Nancy Pelosi has replaced Barack Obama as the all-purpose bete noir of Republican politicians, including Arkansas’s, but will she be as potent as the black president?
Logic tells you no, because no one could be more toxic to most Southern and Midwestern voters than a mixed-race man with a Middle Eastern name who had become the most powerful and admired man on the planet. It was Obama’s election in 2008 that turned Arkansas into a solidly Republican state.
From 2010 forward, Republicans were going to win state and local offices in Arkansas anyway, but linking their opponents to Obama, if by nothing more than side-by-side mug shots of the president and their Democratic opponents, was good insurance.
Pelosi, the congresswoman from San Francisco who was the speaker of the House of Representatives and is now the minority leader, does not reckon to be quite as menacing as Obama to fearful voters who have been convinced that their way of life is under attack by the political descendants of Jefferson and Roosevelt. But the 78-year-old grandmother of eight, unsullied by scandal, is the scariest bugbear the GOP has.
U.S. Rep. French Hill and the party committees backing him are running against Pelosi in Arkansas’s 2nd District. Commercials say Pelosi handpicked state Rep. Clarke Tucker as Hill’s Democratic opponent and will control everything he does, although Tucker, like other Democrats running in red states, says that if he is elected he intends not to vote for her as either the speaker or minority leader.
Tucker knows that is a futile defense. In 2014, former congressman Mike Ross was running for governor and the Republican National Governors Association ran ads and commercials denouncing him as a robot for Pelosi. In fact, Ross had made the nominating speech for Pelosi’s opponent in the last leadership election and regularly defied her leadership on major issues like Obamacare.
Ross joked that the commercials for Asa Hutchinson were an exercise in seeing how many times the announcer could say “Obama, Pelosi and Ross” in 30 seconds. Five was the record.
Women who rise to power are automatically subjected to vilification, but Pelosi’s ascent to villainy is still irrational. The congressional historian Thomas Mann called her “the strongest and most effective speaker in modern times.” Considering the men who preceded and succeeded her, that is not saying much. The only things that Dennis Hastert, John Boehner or Paul Ryan could pass with big Republican majorities were tax cuts. Speaker Hastert quit right before he was charged with evading financial reporting laws, lying to federal investigators and sexually molesting boys. The beloved Denny entered plea agreements and served a little time. Boehner and Ryan quit (Ryan actually will finish his term) because they couldn’t corral the party’s angry factions into doing much of anything.
But, with a bare majority, Grandma Pelosi got things done. She persuaded warring Blue Dog Democrats to vote for Obama’s stimulus package, which passed without a single Republican vote, halted the nation’s slide into depression and started the longest period of sustained growth in the nation’s history. She engineered the financial reform law to prevent another banking collapse. When health insurance reform ran into trouble, she demanded that Obama stick to his goal and that Senate leaders get serious. House committees produced competing reform bills, but she took elements of them, consolidated them into one sweeping bill, allowed a vote to prohibit government-paid abortions in the insurance exchanges and got enough Blue Dogs to go along to pass the bill. In the end, owing to the Senate’s dawdling and the death of Ted Kennedy, Congress had to accept the flawed Senate bill.
She was never a party-liner all the way. She fought President Clinton’s successful effort to admit Communist China into the World Trade Organization. While leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards and Chris Dodd supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she opposed it, ridiculing the president’s assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and predicting a destabilized Middle East, endless conflict and huge losses of American lives and treasure.
Her demonization has followed the familiar pattern — manufactured scandals. The internet for years has been rife with charges that she is an alcoholic who throws wild drinking parties and shows up drunk at the Capitol. Just look at her eyes, they say.
Pelosi does not consume alcohol. She runs in the gym.
When Democrats lost control of the House in 2010, a Washington paper announced the leadership change this way: “There’s a new Speaker coming to the House of Representatives, and unlike grandma Nancy Pelosi, who famously curled up with a tub of chocolate ice cream after long days on the Hill, Republican leader John Boehner has a different poison: booze.” Boehner, who liked to say he grew up in his daddy’s bar, could be found at twilight at the bar of the Hay Adams or Willard hotels near the Capitol.
Why can’t the Democrats find a leader like Boehner, Hastert or Ryan?