Nancy Pelosi has seen this all before.
When President Donald Trump on Thursday night tweeted a doctored video with the heading “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE,” a predictable chorus of outrage quickly followed. Here was the president of the United States crossing yet another line of civil discourse, distributing a deceptively edited clip of a political adversary aimed at sowing doubts about her mental fitness. Hours earlier, the Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani tweeted (and then deleted) a video of Pelosi that was slowed down to make her speech sound slurred, and which had already been viewed millions of times on conservative social-media channels.
Deploying doctored video to diminish the speaker of the House is, arguably, a dangerous use of technology for political ends, and Giuliani suggested it was a warning shot of retaliation after she questioned Trump’s own intellectual faculties earlier this week and suggested he needed “an intervention.” But for Pelosi, it’s merely a new twist on a very old line of attack from Republicans, like a batter facing a pitcher who tweaks his delivery but throws the same pitch. She’s been a household political name for more than a decade now, and the GOP’s approach to her has never wavered: Depict her as a batty old liberal who will lead the nation to fiscal and social ruin. By her office’s count, since she was first elected to speaker in 2007, Republicans have spent hundreds of millions on ads drawn from the same playbook. Usually, there’s an unflattering, shadowy image of Pelosi, perhaps an out-of-context sound bite, and the ominous voice of a narrator tying a Democratic candidate to her supposedly unpopular agenda.
The strategy has not been wholly ineffective. For years, polls placed Pelosi as a deeply unpopular party leader, and the various rebellions against her within her House caucus—she quelled them all—stemmed from Democrats believing that Republicans had successfully demonized her in the eyes of average voters. And Pelosi has given Republicans material to work with. She is not a particularly smooth public speaker, and she’s made her share of gaffes that Republicans have gleefully turned into TV ads.
All along, Pelosi’s allies have argued that broad political dynamics—the state of the economy, for example, or the popularity of the president—determine the Democratic Party’s fate much more than her weathered public image. She’s a superlative fundraiser, a chief party strategist, and its occasional messenger, but only in her home district in San Francisco is she actually on the ballot. The year 2018 seemed to be a validation of that argument: The GOP once again made her the centerpiece of its campaign, jittery Democrats worried that she would cost them the House by not stepping down, and yet, come November, the party had won a landslide victory, and she had turned aside another revolt to become speaker for a second time. And her clashes with Trump have made her more popular with the public; her favorable rating, while still under 50 percent, is the highest it has been in years.
That Pelosi has gotten under Trump’s skin is without dispute. Just as years’ worth of GOP attacks on her have carried the ring of sexism, she has deliberately needled the president’s machismo with leaked private remarks about his “manhood” and ruminations about his “lack of confidence.” On Thursday, she went further in questioning Trump’s stability in describing the “temper tantrum” he had when he stormed out of a meeting with Democratic leaders for a second time. “I pray for the president of the United States,” Pelosi told reporters. “I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.”
Trump responded in kind. Proclaiming himself, once again, “an extremely stable genius,” he called on aides to attest to his “calm” demeanor during a televised event at the White House. And in similarly characteristic fashion, he accused Pelosi of exactly the decline she was implying about him: “I have been watching her for a long period of time. She’s not the same person. She’s lost it,” Trump said, adding that she was “a mess.”
The doctored videos followed hours later, a digital conservative cavalry swooping in to back up Trump’s taunt. Asked to respond to the videos, a Pelosi spokesman referred to her tweeted reply to Trump: “When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential,” she wrote, “I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues.” The spokesman also noted that Pelosi does not drink (a preference she happens to share with Trump), that sexist attacks strengthen her hand politically within her own caucus, and that the GOP’s strategy of attacking her in the 2018 midterms worked so well that she ended up becoming speaker again.
It was the equivalent of a retort and an eye roll. Pelosi isn’t treating Trump’s latest violation of an understood norm as a grave descent into an anything-goes style of political warfare. To her, it seems, it’s more like déjà vu.
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