John F. Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” He also said, “Life in unfair.”
Which is my fancy way of saying that Nancy Pelosi has gotta go.
No, it’s not necessarily fair that the longtime Democratic House leader take heat for what happened Tuesday night in the Georgia congressional election. Alleged wunderkind Jon Ossoff was on the ballot, not Pelosi. Yet there she was anyway, burdening him with her baggage – because Republican strategists know from long experience that invoking Pelosi triggers a Pavlovian response from grassroots Republican voters.
Yes, she’s a great fundraiser and legislative tactician. But fairly or not, many independents and supposedly persuadable Republicans – particularly in the heartland between the two cosmopolitan coasts – have come to view her as a rich San Francisco liberal and consummate Washington insider, the kind of entrenched business-as-usual Democrat who can’t relate to the average Joe. And the most partisan Republicans loathe her as a symbol of big government; she pushes all their buttons and motivates them to vote.
Democrats lost the Georgia congressional election for lots of reasons – rookie candidate Ossoff was robotic on the stump, the district has long been red – but Donald Trump barely won it last November and the Dems pumped in $23 million to make it a referendum on his disastrous reign. But instead, winning Republican candidate Karen Handel managed to make it a referendum on Nancy Pelosi.
Handel painted Ossoff, a bland moderate, as a potential tool of Pelosi. Heck, she and her Republican allies ran ads in Spanish against Pelosi. She suggested that an Ossoff victory would be the first step toward re-empowering Nancy Pelosi – who hasn’t been the House Speaker since January 2011.
Handel did this because internal polling concluded that the GOP’s most effective attack message was Pelosi. The GOP has been targeting Pelosi with impunity this entire decade – they spent $65 million on attack ads in 2010 alone – for the simplest reason of all: It works.
When, if ever, are Democrats going to wake up and deal with their Achilles heel? Granted, dumping Pelosi as the party’s House leader won’t solve all their woes. But symbolism matters. Responsiveness matters. Confronting the fact that your leader is saddled with a national favorablity rating of 28.6 percent – that matters. Dumping Pelosi would signal to the broader electorate that the encrusted party is willing to break with its past and make a new start.
A few House Democrats seem to get it; Long Island lawmaker Kathleen Rice said yesterday, “It’s time for Nancy Pelosi to go, and the entire leadership team.” Heck, one-third of the Democratic caucus got it last year, when it voted in vain to replace Pelosi with Ohio congressman Tim Ryan. What Ryan said then is doubly true today: “We are not a national party right now. We need a leader who can go into (heartland) congressional districts and be able to pull voters…I’m the 43-year-old from the Rust Belt who understands what we’re doing wrong. (Voters) want us to change…If you’re a coach and your team doesn’t win, at some point you’ve got to change the coach.”
Pelosi’s defenders say that scapegoating Pelosi would solve nothing; her spokesman, Drew Hamill, said yesterday that “Republicans will continue to run ads trying to demonize whoever is the Democratic leader.” That’s true – up to a point. Republicans have long been masters at sliming their opponents, dating back to the bad old ’80s era of Lee Atwater. But ask yourself whether they’d have an easier time sliming someone like Tim Ryan – a Rust Belt Ohioan, an ex-high school football star who represents two working-class counties.
I’ll concede, as I said earlier, that Pelosi has raised a ton of money for the ever-shrinking House Democratic caucus. But who’s to say that a fresh-blood Democratic leader couldn’t do the same thing – perhaps by reaching far beyond the traditional Democratic donor class? As I seem to recall, it worked for Bernie Sanders.
Let’s keep this simple: If something doesn’t work, you change it. If you refuse to change, and keep repeating the same losing pattern, you’re flirting with the definition of insanity. How long is the so-called progressive party prepared to stick with the status quo, wallowing in its existential inertia?
I started this column with JFK. I’ll end it with Admiral James Stockdale. He was the veep candidate on Ross Perot’s independent ticket in 1992. He’s best known for his opening remarks during a vice presidential debate. He looked into the camera and said, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
There you have it, today’s Democratic party – suffering from Stockdale syndrome.
Meanwhile, on the Republican front, the Senate GOP’s health care bill is finally emerging from the shadows. No wonder it was crafted in secret. It features a massive tax cut for the affluent (because the affluent will no longer have to help foot the bill for Obamacare), and a massive slash in Medicaid coverage for low-income and disabled Americans.
It’s so draconian that 10 top insurance company executives have protested, in a letter to Senate Republicans, that the bill’s provisions “amount to a 25 percent shortfall in covering the actual cost of providing care to our nation’s neediest citizens.”
Are we surprised?