On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi faced the news cameras alone. The House minority leader had scheduled a press conference to celebrate her party’s midterm election victories, which will bring the Democrats to a decisive majority in the House of Representatives. Pelosi waited for President Donald Trump to conclude his own televised ramblings at the White House before she delivered happy remarks to reporters gathered at the Capitol; and then, of course, Pelosi fielded questions. The reporters didn’t even bother to ask Pelosi whether she intended to serve as speaker of the House once again; they asked her whether she could win the leadership contest within her caucus.
“I think I’m the best person,” Pelosi responded, “to go forward to unify, to negotiate.” Pelosi’s stagecraft echoed her words. On Capitol Hill, party leaders often face the press in unison; but here Pelosi’s longtime lieutenants, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, were nowhere to be seen. There was only Pelosi, the country’s senior-most Democrat. Once again, she was the woman in charge.
In the past quarter century, four different Republicans have served as speaker of the House: the kooky Newt Gingrich, now an unofficial Trump adviser; the disgraced Dennis Hastert, who admitted to child molestation and pleaded guilty to bank fraud charges three years ago; the furious John Boehner, who recently resurfaced as an advocate for marijuana legalization; and, currently, the young wonk Paul Ryan, who will retire from Congress at the end of this term. These four men all represent different priorities within the GOP agenda. They share credit and blame for the party’s recent legislative record. In their differing priorities and temperaments, they represent various characterizations of the Republican agenda.
There’s only one Democrat who, as House speaker, has embodied the liberal agenda. That’s Pelosi, the San Francisco representative who personifies the Democratic congressional leadership, for better or worse. Pelosi is a singular figurehead, invincible in her own district but nonetheless beleaguered as the leader of a party that tends to live, and languish, in the minority. The next House speaker will be a Democrat; most likely it will be Pelosi, though there’s some potential for any number of representatives to challenge her for the leadership. For now, however, Pelosi is once again ascendant.
The Republicans look forward to her leadership most of all. Trump, in one of his first tweets after the election, said he thinks she “deserves” to be speaker again. He seems to be looking forward to confronting Pelosi, specifically. Indeed, Republicans are always spoiling for a fight with Nancy Pelosi, a liberal avatar who supposedly flatters conservative qualities in contrast. Republicans loathe Pelosi so vividly that the party’s strategists have made her into a bogeyman — a bogeywoman — for every election cycle since the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. In Bush’s final years as president, Pelosi emerged as the president’s extreme, cautionary foil: Bush was a twangy, swaggering, Evangelical Texan, and Pelosi was a limousine liberal representing the most strident and ludicrous elements of baby boomer liberalism.
Pelosi isn’t just the House Democratic leader. She is, herself, the mascot who personifies every dysfunctional element within her party’s leadership, not to mention every distasteful element with her party’s base. She personifies dysfunction despite her also, paradoxically, forging resourcefulness and resolve within an otherwise skittish Democratic caucus. Still, Pelosi’s effectiveness has never really mattered to anyone outside the business of politics. For years, her approval rating has circled the drain; Congress is broadly unpopular, and so are all its senior-most leaders, but Pelosi may well be the most maligned legislator this generation will ever know. For 15 years, she’s led the Democratic Party through great turbulence. Save for Obamacare — the century’s most tumultuous legislative achievement — congressional Democrats seem to have squandered their brief periods of legislative dominance in pursuit of ephemeral gains.
Trump won’t be signing Pelosi’s agenda into law. These people won’t work well together, no matter how many times they both wish upon “bipartisanship” in this early, congratulatory phase. Naturally, Pelosi promises oversight for a lawless Trump administration, and Trump has warned against congressional scrutiny of his businesses, his administration, and his 2016 campaign. “If they do that,” Trump warned at his press conference, “then it’s just ... a warlike posture.”
Already, Trump has rushed a few, combative steps ahead of the 116th Congress. Less than an hour after Pelosi concluded her press conference, Trump requested and accepted the resignation of his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and then installed an ally to regain control over the Mueller investigation. The war is on. Indeed, the Democratic mood now resembles the passions that clashed the day after the party won a House majority in the 2006 midterm elections. Publicly, Pelosi clamored for bipartisanship. “I have said it before and I will say it again: Impeachment is off the table,” Pelosi told reporters asking her about George W. Bush. She did, however, promise—in precisely these terms—to “drain the swamp.” This week, Pelosi has made similar assurances about Trump. “I don’t think there’s any impeachment unless it’s bipartisan,” Pelosi told CNBC. And she told PBS, “That’s not what our caucus is about.” Her caucus is one thing. Her base, on the other hand, indisputably disagrees.