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.

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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. 

She went on to say that "I honestly believe that people vote what they believe." Hear that, Daily Show audience? Cynical though you may be, Members of Congress are just doing what they think is right. But if Pelosi truly believes that, why is it that minutes later she said, "the fact is that if we had public financing of campaigns, it would be very important to do," and that the other major reform that's necessary is addressing the "revolving door" between Congress and industry? Cynical Pelosi is right! But the implication is that when she said "I honestly believe that people vote what they believe" she wasn't being entirely honest. It just fit her rhetorical needs of the moment. She in fact knows that lawmakers sometimes cast votes and pass legislation based on more problematic influences, the kinds that pubic funding would perhaps weaken.

Why not be consistently transparent about that?

Stewart responded to Pelosi's lament about the revolving door as follows:

STEWART: But even for you, didn't your guy, your assistant, just go and work for -- you know, he worked with you to design the Obama health care plan, the Affordable Care Act, he worked with you on that, and he just recently left, he's working with the lobbying company, the Chamber of Commerce, that's fighting against it.

PELOSI: Well he didn't work with me to design it.

STEWART: Well, to help you sell it to the people.

PELOSI: Well I don't think he did a very good job in that regard.

STEWART: Whether he was lousy isn't really the issue. Didn't he go from there right to a lobbying company.

PELOSI: I'm talking by and large elected officials. Now we're not on TV are we?

STEWART: Are you going to yell at me?

As it happens, they were in the extended portion of the interview that appears only on the Web. But that's neither here nor there. The point is that Nancy Pelosi knows as well as anyone that the revolving door isn't only problematic when it involves actual members of Congress -- she knows, for example, that just days ago Jack Abramoff was on "60 Minutes" talking about how often the most effective way to exert influence over a Congressional office is to promise a lucrative future lobbying job to a senior staffer. Confronted with the fact that one of her own staffers took this route, Pelosi acts as if that aspect of "the revolving door" isn't really a problem at all.

All that's left is my favorite exchange of the interview:

PELOSI: The public sends us to Congress to find common ground -- to try to find common ground. When we can't find common ground, they send us there to stand our ground, and that is what we are doing.

STEWART: I think the public sends you there to make government an effective lever for streamlining and making this country more efficient.

PELOSI: Of course. [Of course?! You just gave a different answer two seconds ago!] And that's why we go. Why do you think we dedicate our lives to this?

STEWART: I have no idea.

There are less polite answers he could've given.