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Michael A. Cohen

GOP’s demonization of Pelosi is so effective that even Democrats believe it

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In the days since Democrats narrowly lost the fourth special election of 2017, House majority leader Nancy Pelosi has become the primary target of frustrated Democrats.

“It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the party,” according to Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

Representative Kathleen Rice of New York echoed these sentiments in calling for Pelosi and the entire Democratic leadership team to be replaced. “We need a vision . . . and we need a message . . . We just don’t have either one of those in the present leadership.”

Others have complained that there’s “a level of depression” among Democrats and that the party brand is “toxic.”

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These aren’t the first rumblings against Pelosi. Back in November, she was elected for an eighth term as majority leader, but her main rival, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, received 63 of 197 votes cast.

Defenders of Pelosi will rightly argue that her record of policy achievement is significant. She is one of the party’s top fund-raisers, and jettisoning the party’s most prominent female leader risks alienating liberal partisans who admire her.

But Pelosi’s critics have a point. She is 77 and has been the face of House Democrats for more than a decade. Her leadership team is composed of South Carolina’s James Clyburn, who is 76, and Steny Hoyer, who is 78. And let’s face it, since 2012, Democrats have had a pretty lousy run in House elections.

Still, there is something odd about the attacks on Pelosi. They have little to do what she has or hasn’t done as House majority leader, but rather how Republicans perceive her.

This has all come to a head because Pelosi became the focal point of the Republican campaign message in the Georgia special election. Republican Karen Handel relentlessly tied her opponent, Jon Ossoff, directly to Pelosi and her supposed “San Francisco values.” Since Pelosi is so disliked among rank-and-file Republicans, that linkage succeeded in rallying GOP voters and helping Handel prevail.

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It’s emblematic of the one campaign skill that Republicans have consistently mastered — demonizing their political opponents. They did it to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, and they most certainly did it to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The GOP’s demonization efforts are so effective that the simple fact that Democratic leaders are so hated by Republican voters is seen by Democrats themselves as reason enough to dump them.

In fact, Democrats themselves even regurgitate Republican attack lines. Many of the criticisms of Hillary Clinton uttered during the Democratic primary campaign by Bernie Sanders and others traced their lineage to Republican condemnations against her and her husband that had been first trotted out in the 1990s.

Even now, with Pelosi, Democrats are to a large extent integrating GOP attacks against her — that she is out of touch with white working-class voters and that she personifies far-left social values because she’s from San Francisco. In fact, it’s hard to find much in the way of specific policy critiques of Pelosi — such as positions she’s taken or statements she’s made — that are hurting the party. Simply by being Nancy Pelosi and living in a place that has become a symbolic battering ram for attacking liberals, she’s become a liability.

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All of this has created a rather strange political dynamic within the Democratic Party: Republicans demonize a politician. Their attacks are often crude and unfair; but GOP voters believe them and develop an instinctual hatred of said politician. Democrats become convinced that they must react to these often irrational beliefs and, voila, party infighting ensues, with said party leader disparaged and dismissed.

One could certainly argue that instead of letting GOP demonization of their party leaders drive their decision-making, Democrats should stick with Pelosi. By calling for her to step down, they are doing the Republican Party’s bidding.

But it’s also worth asking if maybe, in this case, discretion is not the better part of valor. Sure, Republicans will go after the next House majority leader and seek to demonize him or her. It’s what they do. But if someone like Tim Ryan becomes the head of the Democratic caucus, he will be a much less effective foil for Republican attack ads than Pelosi. Is standing on principle the best path forward for Democrats?

Sometimes in politics, a party has to recognize its rival’s comparative advantage and shift course accordingly — even if recognizing the gross unfairness and sexist nature of it.

It reminds me, in part, of that famous moment that will be familiar to all New England baseball fans. In 2004, Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, after another shellacking by the hated Yankees, told reporters, “They beat me. They’re that good right now. They’re that hot. I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.”

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Maybe Democrats need to tip their hat to the Republicans and recognize that trying to outrun the GOP’s demonization efforts is a losing strategy. And hey, they can always look on the bright side: Thirty-three days after Pedro Martinez made that comment, the Red Sox won the World Series.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.