Evaluating the Pelosi Speakership
By Matthew N. Green
When Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his sudden resignation in the autumn of 2015, House Republicans struggled to find a replacement. Though Boehner managed to cajole a reluctant Paul Ryan (R-WI) to run as his successor, the speakership was so clearly unpopular that it became known as the “worst job in Washington.”
Looking back at the last eight months of Nancy Pelosi’s speakership, one can understand why. Consider: since the start of her current term as speaker, Pelosi had to rein in moderate Democrats who were helping pass Republican amendments; navigate an acrimonious intraparty dispute revolving around anti-Semitism; delay passage of a budget resolution because of sharp disagreements within her party; and field complaints from infuriated Hispanics and progressives in the Caucus when she gave the green light to a border funding bill.
Meanwhile, Pelosi has had to compete with President Trump for media coverage, has been the target of periodic accusations by liberal activists and columnists that she is wrongly blocking impeachment proceedings against President Trump, and has had to defend herself and Democratic moderates from repeated criticisms by left-leaning lawmakers and staff.
Much of this turmoil stems from divisions within the majority party, which is hardly an unusual phenomenon in Congress (as laid out most recently by Norm Ornstein), though the divisions are as much strategic as they are ideological. Furthermore, presidents -- especially Trump -- usually get disproportionate media attention, and divided government constrains the opportunity for majority parties to enact desired legislation, which understandably frustrates their most fervent supporters.
But Pelosi’s troubles, and the strategic choices she has made to address them, also reflect the multiple and, at times, conflicting goals that all modern speakers share.
Goal #1: Protect your majority
Speakers are party loyalists first and foremost, and they can’t keep the job if their party loses power. So unsurprisingly, many of Pelosi’s acts as speaker have been designed to protect her party’s control of the House.
A big part of that duty involves helping Democrats who are the most vulnerable to Republican challengers. Thus, Pelosi has been quick to help Democrats from moderate and conservative districts and defend them from reproach. “A majority is a fragile thing,” she told her party in July. “You make me the target, but don’t make our [moderates] the target.”
This goal also helps explain Pelosi’s reluctance to press for impeachment proceedings. Impeachment is unpopular among independents and Republicans, and as this chart by Sarah Binder shows, lawmakers supporting impeachment are disproportionately from safe Democratic districts.
Enhancing the party brand is another important election-related tactic for speakers. Parties that pass popular bills, even if they fail to become law, can make a compelling case for returning them to power in the next election (and, even better, giving them unified control of government). Pelosi has tried to play up the many bills enacted by the House this year and dismissed accusations that the party is too liberal. She may also be wary that impeachment could distract from those narratives and thereby tarnish the party’s reputation.
In addition, parties that appear unified presumably seem more attractive to voters. Pelosi puts considerable emphasis on party unity, or what Rick Perlstein calls the “ideology of consensus.” When the House was about to approve a major budget bill in late July, for example, she insisted the measure get at least 218 Democratic votes in order to demonstrate that the party was united enough to legislate without help from the GOP.
Conversely, Pelosi may well believe that news stories about internal turmoil will damage the party brand. It therefore comes as little surprise that the speaker has rebuked House Democrats for publicly criticizing their colleagues. She also frequently complains that reporters focus excessively on intraparty divisions rather than major policy issues or scandals in the Trump White House.
Unfortunately, these twin tactics -- helping vulnerable members get reelected and maximizing party unity -- can come into conflict. Greg Koger and Matthew Lebo have found that parties voting as a bloc may actually endanger the electoral safety of some of their members. And when Pelosi, in a July interview with Maureen Dowd, dismissed the influence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and three other House liberals later known as “the Squad,” the resulting furor generated exactly the kinds of headlines she had hoped to avoid.
Other goals matter too
As much as the majority party’s electoral future matters to speakers, it is not all that they care about. In my analysis of the speakership since the 1940s, I found that speakers of the House exercise leadership on behalf of other goals as well.
One such goal, to help their presidential party, may further explain why Pelosi is avoiding impeachment. The reasoning is that impeachment proceedings will embolden the president’s supporters, make Trump look like the victim of a partisan witch-hunt, and -- assuming it dies in the GOP-controlled Senate -- will be interpreted as exonerating Trump. None of this would help the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020.
Policy outcomes are important to speakers too, even during periods of divided government. One reason Pelosi opted to bring the border funding bill to the floor was that, for all its perceived flaws, the measure did provide much-needed humanitarian funding to the U.S.-Mexico border. Battling the GOP Senate over its contents was considered unlikely to result in a better legislative outcome.
But electoral and policy goals can clash with each other, creating yet more challenges for the speaker. Progressives were infuriated that the border funding bill failed to address the separation of migrant families and lacked stronger oversight over how its monies would be spent, instigating weeks of news stories about a divided House Caucus. Another example of the conflict between goals occurred earlier this year, when defections by a growing number of Democratic moderates helped enact several privileged Republican amendments (known as “motions to recommit”). While doing so may have reflected the preferences of their conservative constituents, it effectively gave the minority party the power to alter Democratic bills, and Pelosi had to quash the defections.
Finally, one cannot ignore the importance for speakers of maximizing their support among fellow partisans. This is especially so for Pelosi, who has a long track record of emphasizing personal loyalty and signaling disfavor for those she deems insufficiently loyal.
This year’s Exhibit A is the speaker’s treatment of Ocasio-Cortez, one of her most outspoken critics, who turned down Pelosi’s request to serve on a climate change committee and even participated in a protest in front of Pelosi’s office before she took office. While Pelosi has downplayed any differences between the pair, it is surely no accident that she pooh-poohed Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, suggested that districts like hers could be won by a “glass of water” running as a Democrat, and told Dowd that she was one of a tiny number of Democratic opponents to the border bill who “have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following.”
What will happen next?
There are signs that the rifts between Pelosi and her liberal members may have healed somewhat. For the first time since February, Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez met behind closed doors, presumably to clear the air between them. Also helpful is the departure of Ocasio-Cortez’s controversial chief of staff, who had angered many Democrats with his Twitter attacks on other lawmakers -- a huge no-no on Capitol Hill. And Trump’s inopportune and un-presidential attack on the “Squad” helped further unite the Caucus.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine that the divisions within the Caucus will go away any time soon. Also unclear is whether Pelosi acknowledges how her progressive members can use social media to expand their influence and defend themselves from criticism. Meanwhile, the speaker will undoubtedly continue to be scolded by liberals who believe she isn’t aggressive enough against Trump and Senate Republicans.
Above all, Pelosi will have to continue trying to balance the many, and often conflicting, goals and duties of the speakership. It is what makes the position one of the most difficult -- if not the worst -- political jobs in Washington.
Matthew Green is a professor of political science at Catholic University.