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Who’s Afraid of Nancy Pelosi?

From 538’s Thomas Dollar

Apparently, not enough people to sway an election. Last month, Democrat Mark Critz defeated Republican Tim Burns by eight points in a special House election in Pennsylvania. Markos Moulitsas pointed out that Burns is the latest in a slew of Republican candidates who have tried and failed to use the Speaker as a bogeywoman. Burns actively attempted to tie the anti-abortion, anti-health care reform Critz down to “Nancy Pelosi’s values.” In a socially conservative district like PA-12, this message ought to have had some traction. Pelosi, after all, has consistently poor favorability ratings. According to the latest DailyKos/R2K tracking poll, only 39% of registered voters have a favorable opinion of her, while 51% have an unfavorable one. Furthermore, she represents San Francisco, latter-day American Gomorrah, and home of San Francisco values (if you know what I mean). Even when she became Minority Leader back in 2002, Very Serious Pundits predicted she would be an albatross for the Democrats.

So why isn’t she? Well, for one, it’s likely that most Americans don’t know who she is, and if they do, they don’t really care. This is not something unique to Nancy Pelosi, but a characteristic of Speakers in general. The Speaker of the House is, after all, just another Representative. She is primus inter pares and can set a national agenda, but she is still only elected at the district level–and usually a pretty safe district at that. The Speaker’s job is to whip votes, shepherd her party’s platform through the House, and partake in Conference Committees with the Senate. The office is by its nature partisan and centered on horse-trading, which makes it distasteful to the electorate regardless of who happens to be holding it any given time. (There is no rising above the partisan fray here.) Because of this, Pelosi’s (un)favorability has as much to do with discontent with Congress in general than anything about her in particular. In an anti-incumbent year, this could provide an opening for Republicans. However, Congressional Republicans’ favorability is even lower than Pelosi’s and the Democrats’, and the parties remain neck-and-neck in the generic ballot — hardly prime conditions for a massive anti-Democratic wave.

Pelosi became Speaker after the 2006 anti-Bush, anti-Republican wave. But rather than make herself a firebrand or national media figure, she pushed through traditional Democratic issues: increasing the minimum wage, expanding stem cell research, and passing a student-loan overhaul. And–to the disappointment of some liberal supporters–Pelosi refused to entertain the notion of impeaching Bush, had no control over the Executive Branch bureaucracy (not even in confirmations), and could not conduct her own foreign policy. Nor did she become the public face of the Democratic Party.

The Democrats were beginning their 2008 presidential campaign, in which it was widely assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee. By 2008, the Clinton-Obama contest had so consumed the political energy of the Democratic Party that there was no room for the Speaker to become a media figure even if she wanted to. Pelosi played a crucial role in shaping the last two years of the Bush presidency–most notably in securing the passage of TARP in September 2008–but she was never the front-woman. Since Obama became president, he has been the public face of the Democratic Party–not Pelosi, Harry Reid, or the 533 other members of Congress.

Recent Speakers (and congressional leaders in general) have been equally obscure figures. Anyone wondering what Dennis Hastert and Tom Foley are doing these days? (Yes, they’re both still alive.) Dick Gephardt? Dick Armey? Tom DeLay and Jim Wright were better-known leaders, but that’s mostly because they got in trouble and had to step down.

The big exception to the obscure Speaker rule is, of course, Newt Gingrich. As Tom Schaller’s interview made clear, Gingrich is still on the national media stage twelve years after he was deposed as Speaker. He’s promoting a new book and (possibly) planning a run for president. Like Pelosi, Gingrich became Speaker in a wave election. But unlike Pelosi and the Big Tent ’06 class, Gingrich and the ’94 Republicans were an ideological and confrontational group that sought to upset the Washington culture. Gingrich was also, as Sonny Bono put it, a celebrity. This high public profile did not translate into a successful Speakership. Gingrich’s celebrity made him the fall guy after the 1995 Federal government shutdown. After the Republicans lost five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections (amid the Clinton impeachment imbroglio, and expectations of Republican pickups), Gingrich was thrown under the bus. He resigned his seat, and concentrated on writing and commentary.

Nancy Pelosi is not a political celebrity, nor is she as confrontational as Gingrich. She is a polarizing figure, but polarizing for voters who have already been polarized one way or the other. If Tim Burns, Doug Hoffman and Jim Tedisco have taught Republicans anything, it should be that they can’t count on a tide of anti-Democrat fervor at the expense of ignoring local issues. Contrast these two ads from last November’s NY-23 election: the Conservative Hoffman plays up his anti-Pelosi, anti-Washington credentials, while the Democrat Bill Owens talks about bread and butter issues–literally. (The dairy video was removed for unlicensed use of the Got Milk? trademark.) Hoffman’s stances made him the darling of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, but his attacks on big government were tone-deaf in a district whose economy is dependent on an army base, the Border Patrol, and several state prisons and universities.

All politics is still local, and the Democrats have succeeded in the last dozen special House elections (with the exception of the Hawaii anomaly) by running candidates attuned to their districts. Republicans have run a uniform anti-Pelosi/Washington/Democrat/spending/stimulus/health care campaign–and lost. Even in a wave election, the House is not the British House of Commons: Americans vote for their Congressperson, not the party leader. 2010 may yet be a great year for Republicans (and Nate still thinks it will be), but they might want to start worrying less about Nancy Pelosi and more about the price of milk.

This article was authored by research assistant Thomas Dollar. Please send comments or suggestions to