The Republican pollster makes no bones about his party’s present predicament. The House is history, the Senate hangs by a thread, the GOP coalition is disunited and dispirited. The Democrats are holding all the cards and playing them, if not perfectly, then at least as well as Democrats ever do. There is, he says, only one cause for hope that Republicans can cling to: Her name is Nancy Pelosi. “Whenever she opens her mouth, she loses the Democrats votes,” the pollster says. “The smartest thing that [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman] Rahm Emanuel could do is have her spend the rest of the campaign in Alaska and Hawaii—taking a boat from one to the other.”
No doubt Emanuel, in his heart of hearts, would like nothing more than for Pelosi to take a well-timed (and, ideally, permanent) vacation. But, alas, he holds no sway over the movements of the woman who would be the first female Speaker of the House. And so instead we behold the spectacle of Pelosi on parade. Here she is snarling in the pages of Time, “Anybody who’s ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me.” And there she is on 60 Minutes, telling Lesley Stahl that when in the past she’s assailed Republicans as immoral, corrupt, and borderline criminal, “I was being gentle.”
For Republicans, Pelosi’s omnipresence is the gift that keeps on giving. Across the country, they are laboring furiously to turn her into the Democratic bogeywoman—a harum-scarum image of future liberal misgovernance that should mortify all sensible Americans. This effort, naturally, is taking place most urgently in the electoral trenches. But it’s also emanating from the party’s highest reaches: Last week, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove all publicly hopped onboard the Pelosi-trashing train.
You’d like to believe it won’t work this time. You’d like to believe it just can’t. But it’s worth noting that, in the national polls, the Democratic lead has been cut in half in the last two weeks
The prevailing wisdom about this tactic is that it’s worse than useless. That it’s a sign of sheer desperation. That it’s a feeble attempt to divert attention from the obvious and catastrophic failures of Bush and his enablers. That Democrats tried and failed to do the same thing to Newt Gingrich in 1994—and, say what you will about Pelosi, she’s no scarier than Newt was. And, indeed, all those things are true. And yet I still find myself thinking, fearing, that the tactic just might work.
Not that the campaign to vilify Pelosi—and tar Democratic House candidates with charges of guilt by association—has been waged with particular skill, precision, or wit. In Pennsylvania, the GOP sends an e-mail attacking four Democratic challengers (three of them military veterans) as “the hand-picked political pawns of Nancy Pelosi” and her “tax-and-spend, soft-on-security” friends. In North Carolina, a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat is flayed in a radio ad for following “the Pelosi game plan: Elect Heath Shuler and others like him, and take over Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants.” As for Pelosi herself, the only variance in her portrayal is on the adjectival margin: “extreme liberal,” “left-liberal,” “far-left liberal,” “obstructionist, San Francisco liberal.”
However simpleminded, these broadsides have one thing going for them: They resonate with reality. Pelosi is a woman of the left (or what passes for the left these days), and unrepentantly so. “I pride myself in being called a liberal,” she told an interviewer in 1996. “I don’t consider myself a moderate.” But it isn’t just Pelosi’s ideology that makes her such a ripe target. It’s her shrillness, her partisan rigidity and reflexiveness, her grating and disjointed demeanor on TV, and her seemingly infinite capacity to cough up comments that reinforce the worst stereotypes about her. Asked earlier this year to list the benefits of a Democratic takeover of the House, she replied, “Subpoena power.”
But it’s not just Republicans who hate her. Confronting the prospect of Speaker Pelosi gives many Democrats, too, the chills. Consider the story making the rounds last week about her plans to deny the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee to its ranking Democrat, Jane Harman. Harman is a smart and creative moderate. So she holds little attraction for Pelosi—who is thinking instead of elevating Representative Alcee Hastings, an African-American whose selection would help Pelosi shore up support from the Congressional Black Caucus. Never mind that, in 1989, Hastings was impeached and removed from a federal judgeship on charges of corruption and perjury.
Pelosi’s admirers—she has some—¬contend that all this is inside baseball, with few national electoral implications. They point to polls (like a recent one from Gallup) showing that 30 percent of voters don’t even know who Pelosi is, with the rest split evenly between those who like her, dislike her, and don’t have an opinion. On Pelosi’s own view, this makes her a decidedly sub-optimal Republican punching bag. “I think it’s going to be a hard sell for them to try and say it’s not about George W. Bush and his failed policies … it’s about Nancy Pelosi, somebody [voters] most overwhelmingly have never heard of.”
The problem with this analysis is the same as the one that bedevils so much of the reportage and polling on the 2006 campaign: It suffers from what you might call the fallacy of the national electorate. Democrats rejoice when they read about the results of the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, which has their party leading the Republicans nationally by a solid margin of 54-41 percent—just as they take heart in Pelosi’s relative national anonymity. And just as they reassure themselves that, across the country, swing voters have more important things on their minds than the future of Alcee Hastings.
In the age of Rove and Ken Mehlman, however, Republicans have demonstrated that swing voters are an overrated concept. They’ve shown that what matters, especially in midterm elections, isn’t what the national electorate thinks about the two parties at a point in time but what a small number of voters in a small number of congressional districts actually do on Election Day. As White House political director Sara Taylor put it bluntly last week, “In a traditional midterm headwind, Republicans are going to have to make sure they turn out their base. In places where they do that, Republicans are going to win races they’re supposed to win.”
In the age of Rove and Ken Mehlman, Republicans have demonstrated that swing voters are an overrated concept.
Thus the straightforward logic behind the GOP’s Pelosi pile-on. What worries Rove, Mehlman, and their allies most isn’t Bush’s unpopularity on the war or any other issue. What worries them is that the Republican base—dismayed over the Foley scandal and disappointed with the administration about so much else—will decide it’s not worth the bother to hit the polls on November 7. As it happens, for the people who make up that base, Pelosi is neither an unknown nor an unimportant quantity. She’s a threat to truth, freedom, and the safety of America’s children (at least that’s what the wingnuts tell me over and over by e-mail). And Rove et al. have no intention of letting it slip their minds.You’d like to believe it won’t work this time.
You’d like to believe it just can’t. But it’s worth noting that, for the first time in many months, self-identified conservatives are registering levels of intensity and enthusiasm equal to those of hard-core liberals. And even in those national polls, the Democratic lead has been nearly cut in half in the past two weeks. The power of Pelosi-bashing? Probably not. But, as Rove would surely say, it certainly isn’t hurting.