In defense of Nancy Pelosi
FOR SOME OF US — particularly women of a certain age — what’s happening to 78-year-old House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is painfully familiar.
Much of her own party wants her out.
More than 50 Democratic candidates on the ballot this November say they will not vote for her for speaker if Democrats win the House.
She’s wildly unpopular in polls. In one new poll, nearly half of Democrats surveyed — and 79 percent of independents — say they want someone new.
On “Meet the Press” last Sunday, host Chuck Todd wondered how much Pelosi could hurt Democrats.
Meanwhile, she and her “San Francisco values,” whatever that means, provide fuel for a toxic brew of GOP broadcast ads — again. About a third of them, just in the first quarter of this year, featured Pelosi in unflattering poses.
Many more are sure to come.
There’s a Hillary Clinton-redux quality to it all, from both 2008 and 2016. Clinton, and now Pelosi, are slammed as angry, evil, and so-unappealing twins, the Darth Vader-ettes of GOP dreams.
Yet look at Pelosi’s record. She may be “the greatest Democratic legislative leader since Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson,” wrote Charles Pierce in Esquire.
She’s a fund-raising machine, a cagey tactician. She kept moderate and left Democrats together to turn back efforts to privatize Social Security, to push through Barack Obama’s stimulus plan, plus the Affordable Care Act, and then stymie Donald Trump’s constant efforts to end it. (That’s more than House Speaker Paul Ryan, 30 years her junior, could do.)
Last winter, she defended the immigrant “Dreamers” for eight hours straight on the House floor, standing, no bathroom breaks, wearing Ivanka Trump style four-inch heels.
So why don’t Democrats want her back as Speaker?
Because “it’s time for a new generation of leaders.” That’s the main line from Democrats like Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, who’s leading the insurgent charge for new stars to rise to the top.
And he has a point. Most of us hope to be long retired by 70, never mind 80, enjoying the grandchildren. Pelosi has eight.
Still, there’s so clearly a double standard here. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is 76. As Pelosi herself said when a reporter inquired about her age: “What was the day that any of you said to Mitch McConnell . . . ‘Aren’t you getting a little old, Mitch? Shouldn’t you step aside?’ ”
And now some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing Jim Clyburn of South Carolina to take Pelosi on. How old is he? The same age as she is.
But women of a certain age know how it is in politics, business, love, and much of life. Women lose power as they age. Powerful older women are rarely portrayed well in media. Pelosi, unfortunately, is no TV natural, sometimes struggling for words, wide-eyed and tentative. About the only popular political grandma around is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85. But then, she’s holding back the conservative tide on the Supreme Court.
And liberals go after their own. Chris Matthews had to apologize for sexist remarks about Hillary Clinton. His MSNBC colleague Mika Brzezinski once called Senator Elizabeth Warren, a youthful 69, “shrill” and “almost unhinged.”
Todd Domke, a Republican strategist until Trump came along (now he’s an independent), says Democrats should calm down. November will be a referendum on Trump, not Pelosi. A CNN poll last week underscored that, revealing that Democrats may be overestimating Pelosi’s impact.
Yet others I asked — including a Democrat who’s closing in on Medicare herself — told me Pelosi’s future depends on assessments post-Labor Day. They freely admit: her troubles have less to do with performance and more to do with gender, age, and polls that show Americans don’t like her — just like millions of Americans didn’t like that other older woman, who ran for president, Hillary Clinton.
But this time around, if Pelosi is threatening a win, it’ll be hardball, and Nancy Pelosi will have to go.
Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.