Why Nancy Pelosi Exasperates Jon Stewart

The House Democratic leader tried to persuade "The Daily Show" audience that their cynicism is misguided. Instead, she justified it.

In the midst of a segment poking fun at Herman Cain, who has blamed "the Democrat machine" for stoking sexual harassment allegations against him, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart said this: "The Democrat machine. It costs billions of dollars, it runs on solar energy, and it turns hope into disappointment."


"It sounds like that joke physically hurt them," Stewart said after gauging the audience's reaction. So began an episode that ended with former Speaker of the House and Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi submitting to an interview. And if the program started on a cynical note, her remarks would only justify the supposition that politicians tend to smile wide as they obscure. Sometimes Pelosi refused to acknowledge let alone explain pathologies in the system that in fact exist, as when Stewart tried to get her to expound on why it is that sound reforms are needlessly complicated or weakened when put into legislative language.  

Other times she fell back on banal partisan talking points:

JON STEWART: You lead the party that thinks government can take effective, forceful action to change people's lives. At what point do the Democrats have to prove that -- to prove that government can be agile and effective?

NANCY PELOSI: Well, we don't want any more government than we need. But we also have to recognize that we have two different paths here. One path, bless their hearts, the Republicans, they do what they believe. And they do not believe in Social Security, Medicare, clean Air, clean Water, food safety, public safety, public education...

Really? That's how Democrats can prove a core aspect of their world view? By pretending not only that Republicans don't believe in public safety and education, but going so far as to assert that they've somehow "done what they believe" by getting rid of those (still existing) things? Pelosi evaded the question with a partisan dig; and despite being pitted against a party as glaringly dysfunctional as the GOP, she couldn't even offer an accurate or penetrating dig.

Sometimes the interview was depressing because Pelosi told the truth, and Stewart is smart enough to see and pithily articulate its implications. Consider an exchange on the debt ceiling battle. Pelosi accurately notes that when she was running the House she never made it an obstacle to George W. Bush.

PELOSI: We didn't say to him, you amass this debt, we're not lifting the debt ceiling, because we have to honor the full faith and credit of our country. But the Republicans, with this president and this president only, exacted upon him that $1.2 trillion --

STEWART: Well, you know President Obama himself voted against lifting the debt ceiling [when Bush was president].

PELOSI: That's okay, you can vote against lifting it, but you can't obstruct it.

STEWART: He voted against it.

PELOSI: You can vote against it --

STEWART: He said he voted against it because he knew the other people would lift it.

PELOSI: That's right, and I say to my members, you can vote any way you want --

STEWART: But you can see how that would --

PELOSI: -- but we're not going to obstruct. It's not about how you vote, it's about whether you obstruct.

STEWART: So it's okay to do it for political reasons, but not for principle.

PELOSI: No, you vote for what you believe.

STEWART: As long as it doesn't actually obstruct it.

NP: Well, other people who may believe differently can take care of that. (Stewart leans back in chair exasperated with hand on forehead.)

The United States Congress: they vote their conscience, unless doing so might actually change the outcome, in which case it amounts to, er, unconscionable obstruction. Of course, it's often actually grandstanding or placating voters in one's district by taking meaningless stances with which one actually disagrees, but Pelosi isn't willing to say that on TV, even though every sophisticated observer recognizes voting kabuki as part of the system. Stewart is just saying it is unseemly, something that squares with our intuitions. Pelosi has lost that intuition. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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