Can the GOP Demonize Pelosi One More Time?

The Republican ad assault on the Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is now in its 12th year, but it may not work in the 2018 midterms.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

An ominous ritual unfolds in the opening chapter of George Orwell’s 1984. Staffers in the Records Department gather for an exercise known as the Two Minutes Hate. This gathering is disturbing and predictable, yet ever-changing.

It goes like this: On an oversized telescreen, Big Brother’s party apparatchiks flash the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, a designated “Enemy of the People.” As Orwell tells it, “The program of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure.”

And the response, as intended, was always Pavlovian: “There were hisses here and there among the audience … uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out … the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically … People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen … The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.”

It’s a stretch to equate the Two Minutes Hate with the Republican Party’s relentless attacks on Nancy Pelosi—the GOP ad blitz is now in its 12th year—but they do share the same objective: rallying the partisans by demonizing an external foe. Republicans call Pelosi “the gift that keeps on giving” because they think that her face on a screen stokes fear and anger.

So they’re hitting her hard in the 2018 congressional midterms—painting the House Democratic leader as a “San Francisco liberal” and lashing Democratic candidates to her mast—because it worked so well in 2010 (when they spent at least $65 million on anti-Pelosi ads and won the House) and again in 2014 (when they augmented their House majority). Pelosi was featured in roughly one-third of all GOP broadcast ads in the first quarter of 2018, devoting a great deal of attention to a politician with little power.

It’s not clear, however, that the formula will work again in 2018. Midterms are typically a referendum on the president, and the current one has politically damaged himself by siding with the Russians who cyber-invaded the American electoral process. But Republicans need an enemy and Pelosi is the best they have. Especially now, when grassroots GOP voters say she’s worse than Kim Jong Un.

Democratic voters aren’t wild about Pelosi either; in a new Gallup poll, only 55 percent rated her favorably, her lowest score in nearly a decade, which is perhaps a response to the fact that Democrats have lost 39 House seats since she took the speaker’s gavel in 2007, and that during the last Congress she presided over the smallest Democratic caucus since 1929.* And what’s noteworthy at the moment is the mini-rebellion among the 2018 candidates. Roughly two dozen Democrats—most of whom are running in red districts that the party believes it can flip—have publicly distanced themselves from Pelosi with all deliberate speed, seeking shelter in advance of an anticipated Republican storm. (One Democratic operative in Washington, D.C., told me privately that he suspects the actual number of dissidents is higher.)

Most of these red-district candidates are decorously signaling their independence, but you don’t need a decoder ring to get the message. Elissa Slotkin in Michigan’s Eighth District says that “on both sides of the aisle, people are seeking new leadership.” Dan McCready in North Carolina’s Ninth District says, “I think we need a whole new generation of people in D.C.” Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey’s Second District says, “It very well could be that we look at new Democratic leadership.” And a few have dispensed with euphemisms—most notably, Richard Ojeda of West Virginia’s Third District, who says that “Nancy Pelosi is an absolute train wreck,” which is probably what a Democratic candidate needs to say in Donald Trump–loving West Virginia.

And dissident Democratic incumbents are still speaking out. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who unsuccessfully sought to oust Pelosi after the 2016 debacle (he garnered one-third of the caucus votes), says he won’t support Pelosi for the speakership in the wake of a blue wave. His district is heavily working class; what he believes now is what he believed in November 2016, when he said: “We need a leader who can go into [heartland] congressional districts and be able to pull Trump voters back. [They] gave us the middle finger. They 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.”

Even Joseph Crowley, the Democratic congressman who ranks fourth in the leadership hierarchy (but not for much longer, due to his ouster in a New York primary), purposely whiffed last Sunday when asked whether he thought Pelosi deserves another stint as speaker if the party wins the House. He said, “Well, look, you know, I do think that that’ll be up to the new Congress to decide who the next leader or speaker [will] be.” Having lost his seat by double digits to a young Democratic insurgent, he apparently sees no upside in the status quo.

But Pelosi has many fervent defenders who respect her prowess, especially as a tactician and fund-raiser, and contend that the usual Republican attacks will fail in 2018—because this year is historically unique. The veteran progressive organizer Steve Rosenthal, a former AFL–CIO political director and former deputy political director at the Democratic National Committee, told me:

I may be in the distinct minority among people on the left, but the president of the United States may have committed treason [in Helsinki] and we could well be facing a constitutional crisis. For the sake of the country, Democrats need the A-team on the field … I’ve spent a lifetime working in the trenches of Democratic campaigns. Voters don’t care about who the leaders are in Congress. They care about the problems they face every day, and they care about the integrity of our country. Democrats have a very solid case to make on the economy and as the Trump offenses continue to mount, if we can’t make this an election about the future of our very democracy, then shame on us. Plus, in this election, women may well be the deciding vote in many of these districts and Pelosi is the highest-ranking woman ever in our history.

Rosenthal basically says that Trump’s baggage will trump Pelosi’s, at least in competitive districts. He’s seconded by Larry Sabato, the seasoned political analyst at the University of Virginia. He told me that he’s not surprised by the candidate rebellion against Pelosi (“Most people have seen this coming for quite a while”), and it has long been true that the anti-Pelosi ads “motivate some Republicans.” However, he said, “Pelosi is out of power, and Trump as the devil figure for swing voters has much more currency.”

If Sabato is right, we could see a repeat of what happened in 2006. People forget that when the Republicans first tried to demonize Pelosi in a midterm election—2006 was her third year as the House Democratic leader—they failed abysmally. Defending their shaky House majority, they peppered TV viewers with ads that linked Democratic candidates to “far-left liberal Nancy Pelosi,” to “San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi” and her “soft on security” values. Airing black-and-white photos of her wide-eyed stare, she looked like a fiend from Night of the Living Dead. But the overriding issue that year was George W. Bush’s Iraq war, not Pelosi. Democrats captured the House, and she got the gavel.

But just to be on the safe side in 2018, those red-district Democratic candidates are taking a page from Conor Lamb, the moderate Democrat and military veteran who recently won his special House election in conservative southwestern Pennsylvania. Pelosi was reportedly featured in 58 percent of Republican ads, and they tried to link Lamb to Pelosi with an ad that rewrote a nursery rhyme (“Nancy had a little Lamb/ His views were left like hers”). But when Lamb replied with an ad of his own, telling the camera “I don’t support Nancy Pelosi,” the GOP strategy was DOA.

Republicans will simply try to link the dissident Democrats to Pelosi anyway. This is what they do. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC affiliated with House Speaker Paul Ryan, said on June 28: “These Democratic candidates are tied to Nancy Pelosi and her toxic liberal agenda, no matter what they say.” Regardless of whether the midterm mood is rough for Republicans (2006) or fortuitous (2010 and 2014), they just can’t quit her.

*This article originally stated that Pelosi took the speaker’s gavel in 2009 and that she currently presides over the smallest Democratic caucus since 1929. We regret the errors.