Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nancy Pelosi Is Unpopular. What Matters Is Whether She's Good.

William Galston writes about the outgoing Speaker's poor polling numbers:
This is especially significant because, other than President Obama, Nancy Pelosi is the best-known and most visible public face of the Democratic Party.
...and other than Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonds Jr. was the best ballplayer son of Bobby Bonds.

It's early yet in postelection analysis, but I'll take any wager offered that at the end of the day, opinions of Nancy Pelosi will turn out to have absolutely no explanatory power on the 2010 vote.  Zero.

Now, one can make the case that the policy choices the Democrats made in 2009-2010 hurt them.  And one could even make the case that Pelosi moved House Democrats too far to the left, although I think that's a lot harder to show; I don't think there's a lot of evidence that what they actually did is far to the left of where House moderates are.  For example, as far as I know no Member of the House got in trouble for supporting radical stuff in the original House health care bill that was stripped by the Senate.  Whatever the effects of health care on the 2010 elections, it was based on a bill that won the support of Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Nelson. 

Now, I do think that Dave Weigel has some good questions about Pelosi, including:
Progressives have convinced themselves that Pelosi's Democrats were unfairly punished because the Senate didn't act on the legislation she passed. Well, sure. But I assume she could have gotten senators on the ask whether the bills she was passing had chances of success. What was the point of passing a cap and trade bill far more painful to coal country and business than the one that Democrats knew could get through the Senate? 
It's a good question -- but there may be a good answer.  It may be that Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the White House were in fact working closely on climate/energy, but someone -- not Pelosi -- did a lousy job of counting votes in the Senate.  It could be that the overwhelming majority of the House Democratic caucus knew exactly what was likely, but still wanted to take the risk of passing the bill.  I don't know, and I'd love to see good research about House/Senate relations during the 111th Congress.  I do think there's a good chance that Pelosi and Reid and the White House erred repeatedly in that area, but  we need more information.

Regardless, that's all about how good Pelosi really is at playing the inside game.  Galston considers it to be "common sense" that the public relations aspects of the job are more important, but he's going to need some evidence for that beyond Pelosi's lousy poll ratings.  There's no reason to believe that voters thought they were choosing a Speaker when they voted, and lots of evidence over the years that such things are unlikely to matter.  Even if she is the second most visible Democrat.


  1. Now that the House Dems are in the minority, I doubt Pelosi will remain the second "best-known and most visible public face of the Democratic Party." With Reid running the Senate and VP Biden running for re-election, Pelosi will almost certainly take a back seat to both of them in the headlines.

    Yes, the fact that Cap & Trade, et al were passed may have hurt some Democrats at the polls. But the fact that Pelosi did it--as opposed to, say, Speaker Clyburn, Hoyer, or Van Hollen--didn't matter a lick.

  2. According to those crosstabs in the Quinnipiac poll, only 73% of Dems even *had* an opinion about Pelosi, and of those Democrats who actually had an opinion -- and only Democrats' opinions are important when it comes to picking a minority leader -- 66% had a favorable opinion of Pelosi.

    Once again, the GOP drives the conversation in Washington. Interestingly, only 9% of Republicans "hadn't heard enough" about Pelosi to have an opinion about her.

    Even more interestingly, fully 63% of Republican respondents "haven't heard enough about Mitch McConnell, and 55% of Reps "haven't heard enough" about John Boehner to have an opinion either favorable or unfavorable.

    So, it appears that the rightwing demonization machine works just fine on Republicans and political journalists. But then, we knew that.

  3. Pelosi is an interesting case study because she's stayed away from politics as defined by television in order to practice it in the real world. Her track record in the 111th Congress was impressive, particularly in a polarized environment. It's a shame that Obama played the Senate game so badly, first by picking off the best players for his Cabinet (Clinton was a good call, but I think he could have found a replacement for Biden and certainly Salazar) and, even worse, removing potential challengers from the field (Napolitano, Sebelius, Vilsack), and second by assuming the Senate that was left (both in terms of actual legislators and the potential opponents they faced) was capable of passing legislature that measured up to the demands of the time.

    But, I think when Pelosi passed the climate bill it wasn't clear yet that Obama's strategy had failed. If Baucus had been able to convince Grassley that it was worth passing health care reform, McConnell's strategy would have failed, and we'd like have a climate law today. After Pelosi forced her members to pass the Senate version of the health care law, she more or less stopped pressuring her members to pass bills, which was about the right time.

    Once again, I'm baffled by the same thing: why don't Democrats tell it like it is: we would be able to do great things, but Senators representing small population states that contribute next to nothing to our national GDP or, worse, act as a drain on our economy, refuse to put aside narrow self-interest and help the country. Republicans attack the cities routinely, but Democrats also tiptoe around what is the single biggest impediment to this country's progress.

  4. This has an easy and obvious answer. They passed a relatively strong climate bill because they knew the Senate would water whatever they passed down. By passing a strong bill, the chances of actually getting something worthwhile from the conference committee were increased. If they had pre-emptively conceded to what could pass the Senate, then Lieberman and other conservadems would have just moved the goal posts even further to the right.

  5. Ron,

    Well, yes, but at the end of the day it didn't work: they got saddled with a tough vote, and they didn't get anything done. Perhaps it was a gamble that they thought was worth taking; perhaps they had good reason to believe at the time that it would work; but regardless,it didn't work.


    It's not exactly clear what Democrats would gain by attacking the large, empty states. Regardless, that wasn't the problem in 09-10; the electoral system gave Dems a larger advantage in the Senate than they "deserved" from their percentage of the vote. Of course, how useful 59% of the Senate was is another question (but not an obvious one -- they did get a lot done).


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