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Trial by fire? Pelosi proves she’s still in the game

Why We Wrote This

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi weathered a storm of criticism before the midterms, including from Democrats. Now her experience has paid off in facing down the president, polishing her image nationally and at home. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D) of California walks with reporters to a Democratic Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill on Feb. 6, 2019. Ms. Pelosi has reasserted her authority over her party after facing a challenge to her speakership from younger officeholders.

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One year before the 2018 midterms, Nancy Pelosi faced withering criticism, including from some in her own party. In her home state of California, more Democrats wanted to replace her as their leader in the House than keep her. But a sweeping victory in the House and a subsequent showdown with President Trump over border funding has restored Ms. Pelosi’s standing.

Gil Cisneros, a first-time Democratic representative from California, was among the critics. But he’s since changed his tune. Pelosi is “leading the party down a great path … standing up to the president,” he says. And it’s what Californians want to see. Nearly half say they approve of how she is handling her job. “They don’t want us to give in,” Representative Cisneros says.

Democrats’ earlier calls for new voices at the top seems to be shifting. Pelosi, who has held on to the top rung of the leadership ladder since 2003, is 78. Her fellow California officeholder, octogenarian Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was just reelected. Analysts say experience in political leadership and in the workings of Congress matter at a juncture when Mr. Trump is declaring a national emergency to defy Congress.

One thing you can say about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: People have definite views about her. “She’s an obstructionist,” says Julianna, outside a post office here in the city where Richard Nixon was born. “I don’t like her politics,” says Ken Barber. “I’m a conservative. She’s a liberal.”

On the other hand, Jesus Pucan, a Filipino-American, praises Representative Pelosi for a “job well done,” while Emma Brinkley, a first-time Californian voter at 18 last year, says she likes the speaker’s ability to block President Trump even if she doesn’t know much about her as a politician.

Despite these opposing stances, public opinion about the most powerful and vilified Democrat in the nation is shifting. Her favorability ratings are rising on a swell of support from Democrats who see her as an effective opponent to the president. Even some Republicans express a certain admiration for her political skill.

“I was wrong. I completely underestimated how powerful and how strong she is,” said Meghan McCain on ABC’s “This Week” after the nation’s longest government shutdown ended last month on the speaker’s terms. Far-right commentator Mike Cernovich tweeted: “Nancy Pelosi is alpha.”

“We’ve gone from people saying she’s been around too long, we need fresh blood, to a pretty unanimous verdict, at least among Democrats and analysts, that she’s a legislative master, a tough negotiator. It’s a whole different set of images ascribed to her,” says Robert Shrum, who teaches at the University of Southern California and who advised the presidential campaigns of Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore.

Gallup, which has been tracking Pelosi since she became the House Democrats’ minority leader in 2003, found that 38 percent of Americans viewed her favorably in early December. That’s still low, but it’s up 9 points since June and higher than her historic average. Since the shutdown ended, other polls put her support among registered voters in the low 40s.

But her home state of California, which is at the forefront of the resistance movement, is giving her even louder plaudits. Forty-eight percent of California’s adults approve of how she is handling her job as speaker, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California taken in the last week of the shutdown.

“That’s a very positive rating, considering what the [low] rating is of Congress right now and the rating of the president” in the Golden State, says the institute’s president, Mark Baldassare. Two-thirds of Californians blame Mr. Trump and Republicans in Congress for the shutdown. The president has a 30 percent approval rating in California, compared with almost 44 percent nationally, according to the Real Clear Politics average.

From a drag to an asset

It wasn’t always this way with Pelosi, who was elected the first-ever woman speaker in 2007, then lost the gavel when Republicans gained control in the tea-party wave of 2010. With Democrats failing under her leadership to take back the House in 2012, 2014, and 2016, the grumbling about the septuagenarian was audible. 

Mark DiCamillo, another California pollster, recalls attending various conferences and lunches a couple years ago. “I would say, ‘Nancy’s just not that popular, and you could make a case that she’s a drag on congressional candidates in the country and in California.’ ” 

Indeed, a September 2017 poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, which Mr. DiCamillo directs, showed that larger proportions of Democrats in California wanted to replace Pelosi as leader, whether or not the Democrats retook the House.

In California and the rest of the country, Republicans ran ads in swing districts during last year’s campaign, pairing Democratic candidates with Pelosi as a threat. In southern California’s 39th district, a Republican stronghold that includes Nixon’s birthplace here in Orange County, Democratic congressional candidate Gil Cisneros said that while he “respected” all that Pelosi has done, it was “time for new leadership.”

But what a change a year made. On the eve of the election, an unpublished poll by DiCamillo found a huge majority of California Democrats wanted Pelosi as speaker – nearly 72 percent – if the party won. Suddenly Democratic voters focused and became pragmatic, DiCamillo says. The GOP’s warnings about Pelosi proved ineffective. Democrats took back the House, gaining 40 net seats, including seven in GOP strongholds in California. 

Among the winners was Representative Cisneros. In November he signed a letter saying he would not vote for Pelosi as speaker, later changing his mind once she agreed to serve no longer than four years in that role. Now he talks of her glowingly, telling the Monitor that “she’s leading the party down a great path … standing up to the president.”

It’s what voters back home want, he says, of the tough speaker who joked in her memoir that she eats nails for breakfast. “They don’t want us to give in. They want us to be an inclusive society. To welcome immigrants to our country. The speaker has been a great example of that.”

“Winning changes a lot,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D) of California, with a grin.

Stand your ground

More than any other factor, it is anti-Trump sentiment that has fed a pro-Pelosi one, says DiCamillo. Opposition to the president drove women such as Ms. Brinkley, who spoke excitedly about taking part in the first women’s march in Los Angeles, to the polls, as well as Latinos, who showed up in numbers resembling a presidential election.

But that is not to discount Pelosi’s political skill in leading her party to a crushing victory, deftly winning over Democrats, and then holding her ground that there would be no negotiating with the president on border security without ending the shutdown first.

When it came time to forge a bipartisan bill to fund the rest of the government through September, Democrats agreed to only $1.37 billion for 55 new miles of border barriers. That’s far from the $5.7 billion the president wanted. Trump signed the bill on Friday but declared a state of emergency on the border so that he could redirect money from other government spending to build a border wall. Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer of New York called the move a presidential “power grab” that violated Congress’s exclusive power of the purse and said they would pursue “every remedy” to stop it. 

Far from age being seen as a detriment for women in politics – or other fields, for that matter – it’s proving its usefulness. 

Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic adviser to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein – just reelected in her mid-80s – says the age issue for both Senator Feinstein and Pelosi is “irrelevant” in the face of their experience.

Pelosi’s skill set “is perfectly attuned with this particular moment in time,” says Mr. Carrick. “She’s got a grasp of the substance of the issues and how to move legislation both substantively and politically, and she’s just tremendously outflanking Trump at every moment.”

Monitor staff reporter Jessica Mendoza contributed to this story from Washington.

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