The Pelosi Conundrum: Cunning Or Catastrophically Cautious?

Obviously, there is a reason that Nancy Pelosi has been the only Democratic Speaker of the House this century and, when not in the majority, has served as House Minority Leader for every other year but two during that time. She is known for being a precise vote-counter, able to not only read her caucus but keep them remarkably unified, a talent that was an important factor in getting the ACA passed and preventing its repeal. She is also a prodigious fundraiser. She has a reputation of being a tough and shrewd negotiator, especially when it comes to reconciling bills with the GOP-controlled Senate. And there is no doubt that her decision in 2018 to focus on healthcare and kitchen table issues over Trump and his corrupt administration resulted in an overwhelming and historic electoral victory for Democrats in the House.

And yet, having finally regained power, Pelosi has seemed consistently reluctant to use it. The expectation after 2018 was that the House would pass a myriad of messaging bills that would dovetail with the general themes of whichever Democrat became the nominee for President in 2020, knowing those bills would die in the Senate. And Pelosi delivered on that promise early on with bills like HR1, which focused on anti-corruption and voting rights, HR9, which attempted to restore US participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, and bills on equal pay, lowering prescription drug costs, and background checks to purchase guns.

The other expectation was that the House would begin aggressive oversight of the massively corrupt administration, even though that had not necessarily been the focus of the 2018 election campaign. That assumption was driven by the simple logic that such widespread and obvious corruption and self-dealing simply could not be allowed to stand if we were to have an effective government and a functioning democracy.

Pelosi clearly felt otherwise, restraining chairmen Nadler, Schiff, and Cummings from forceful investigations early in 2019, instead preferring to wait for Mueller. Democrats slow-walked even issuing subpoenas for administration officials, were even slower about pursuing the issue in court when those subpoenas were defied, and never really pressured to courts to expedite those cases they did pursue. Pelosi never really considered using the power of the purse or the inherent contempt power the House has to enforce those subpoenas.

When the redacted Mueller report finally came out, it took nearly two months to get Mueller’s testimony, after which the House promptly departed for the extended summer recess, breaking any momentum for impeachment. Even by that time, Pelosi had made her position quite clear. She had no interest in an impeachment process that everyone knew would end in acquittal. Instead, her focus was beating Trump at the ballot box.

Even before that summer recess, Pelosi had agreed to a two-year deal that increased domestic spending but also took the budget and debt ceiling off the table until after the 2020 election. From many progressive Democrats, that amounted to giving away two very important leverage points for very little in return.

Despite Pelosi’s reluctance to impeach, even she could not ignore Trump’s attempt to extort an investigation of Biden from a foreign power in return for congressionally authorized military aid. Such an attack on our democracy could not be ignored. A strong majority of Democratic base was demanding impeachment as was a slight majority of Americans as a whole. But, again, Pelosi opted for the narrowest impeachment process possible and rushed it through in the fall of 2019.

Today, Pelosi seems to be reprising the response to the 2008 financial crisis all over again. Back then, the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), along with massive infusions of liquidity from the Federal Reserve, bailed out Wall Street, with the CEOs who fueled the crisis walking away unscathed with millions or taking enormous bonuses even as they received TARP money. For the rest of us, the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) was known to be vastly insufficient even before it was passed. The result of both was a bailout for Wall Street and neglect for Main Street, the fallout from which lasted the rest of the decade. The lesson from the Great Recession was that there is little harm in overestimating the depth of a downturn and that government could never do too much to stem a potentially long period of unemployment.

That lesson was apparently not well learned. Certainly, in this crisis, we have done marginally better, offering direct cash payments for the unemployed, forgivable loans to small businesses, along with the usual bailout for the big corporate oligarchs. For that, Pelosi gets at least some kudos. But, even within days of the passage of the $2 trillion relief bill, it was clear that the package was once again strongly tilited in favor of the big corporate bailouts and insufficient for everyone else.

The holes in the bill were enormous. Even Jim Cramer knew that it would not be enough, declaring, “The stimulus package will help, but I wish they could spend even more money getting this thing beaten”, and adding that it would probably take $4 or $5 trillion to actually contain the virus and to get the economy back on its feet. There was clearly not enough money in it for medical equipment and to keep the hospitals that are hemorrhaging money afloat during the pandemic. There was not enough for state and local governments, which will soon be forced to start cutting services just when they are needed the most. The small business loan program, designed for firms with under 500 employees, was also woefully underfunded and being raided by large restaurant and hotel chains under an exemption in the law likely designed to appease the President. Both parties agree it will need another infusion of money.

In theory, a well-functioning opposition party that held a veto point over the legislation by virtue of controlling the House might have learned the lesson of 2008 and realized there was no down-side to passing the $4-$5 trillion package the country will end up needing and then make the Republicans cut it down in negotiations, leaving the GOP exposed when the shortfalls occur. A more aggressive opposition party would have exploited their position of maximum leverage as we faced a calamitous public health and economic calamity and insisted on advancing their political priorities.

And, in fact, the initial discussions about the bill coming out of the House did exactly that. As one opponent described it at the time, the proposed bill “imposes racial and gender pay equity provisions, diversity on corporate boards, increased use of minority-owned banks by federal offices…It increases the collective bargaining power for unions and cancels all the debt owed by the U.S. Postal Service to the U.S. Treasury…[T]here are increased fuel emission standards and required carbon offsets for airlines, plus tax credits for alternative energy programs…[T]here is a provision for student loan payment deferment…It gives $100 million to juvenile justice programs, and suspends various aspects of enforcement of immigration laws…[I]mposes…requirements on states for early voting, voting by mail, required mailing of absentee ballots to everyone…online voter registration, same-day registration”. It also included expanded family, medical, and sick leave.

Pelosi could have passed this bill and told McConnell and Trump to take it or leave it. Instead, she backed off that approach as soon as McConnell rejected the proposed bill and then the Senate left town for a week. By the time they returned, Pelosi had already negotiated the watered-down and insufficient CARES Act that was passed.

A well-functioning opposition party committed to democracy would have demanded the $2 billion it would take to get states to convert to mail-in voting and avoid the electoral and public health disaster we recently witnessed in Wisconsin in November. Instead, they got one-fifth of what was necessary. Relatedly, one would think that preventing the impending financial collapse of the US Postal Service, the essential infrastructure supporting mail-in voting, would also have been important to include in the relief bill.

More disturbingly, a well-functioning opposition party, knowing all the shortcomings of the current bill, would not have recessed for three weeks but instead put together the larger package of relief that we all know we will need and then leave it on the doorstep of the absent Republican Senate and White House. A well-functioning opposition party would be planning for the next phase of this crisis which will require massive, probably nationwide, testing and contact tracing programs so that we can slowly come out of self-isolation.

For that matter, a well-functioning opposition party would not be on a three-week recess while literally thousands of Americans are dying every day. Almost 15% of the population has filed for unemployment in the last three weeks and the unemployment rate is probably around 20% right now and continuing to get worse. Around 30% of renters have not paid what was due on April 1st. Tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of Americans are lining up for food banks every day across the country. And the House is basically MIA. Yes, discussions and negotiations may be ongoing and Pelosi’s skills in that regard may produce more than we expect. But the symbolism of actual being seen to do the work of the people is an important part of politics and that is simply not happening.

Instead, Pelosi has left the stage to Trump, who dominates the news cycle with a free two-hour political rally that gets broadcast to every American each and every day. And it now appears that Democrats will be agreeing to an additional $400 billion for the small business loan program and around $100 billion combined for both hospitals and testing. Both these efforts will not be sufficient. The original small business loan program only reached around 5% of actual small businesses. Even assuming this new fund is not raided by the hotel and restaurant chains that were grandfathered in to the first tranche, it can barely expect to reach maybe another 10% or 15% of small businesses. The rest will probably fold.

The new agreement apparently has nothing to support state and local governments, nothing for renters, nothing for front-line workers and little for the protections they need, nothing to protect our elections, no money for SNAP, nothing for the Post Office. Apparently the reason we can’t get money for state and local governments is that Trump is already planning to use the leverage of federal aid to extort the states into re-opening the economy.

Once again, House oversight of this massive relief bill seems remarkably restrained. Pelosi only named her appointment to the relief bill oversight panel a few days ago. She chose Donna Shalala, who did not seek the job, over Katie Porter, who actively lobbied for the job. Porter sits on both the House committees dealing with the Fed and financial industry. Shalala, on the other hand, has multiple investment holdings that would create a clear conflict of interest for her. The chair of Pelosi’s newly-formed committee overseeing the administration’s distribution of the relief funds declared that it would be “forward-looking” and not review the administration’s bungling of the crisis to begin with. Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars have already gone out the door.

Back in May 2019, Pelosi declared that Trump would “self-impeach”. It seems more and more clear that the statement was not really about impeachment per se, but actually referenced Pelosi’s belief that Trump would reveal himself to be so unfit for office he could not get re-elected. It reflected her belief that Democrats should be solely focused at defeating Trump at the ballot box. For Pelosi, the strategy has been to get out of the way and let Trump fail on his own. As one Democratic lawmaker recently described it, referencing the pandemic relief bill, “We have a certain amount of leverage but…you can’t be seen as the one holding it [the package] up”.

That attitude seems to summarize Pelosi’s whole approach since 2018, namely never be seen as the one standing in the way. It applies to both legislation and oversight. She will get what she can in negotiation but she will never draw a line in the sand. Many would say that is what governance is all about. And there is no doubt that she has done an impressive job of protecting those new members in red or purple districts. After all, when Pelosi took the Speaker’s job in 2018, the immediate goal was to avoid minority status in the House in 2020 in order to prevent another total GOP takeover, especially considering the difficulty of ousting an incumbent President and the small state bias in the Senate. Although there is a lifetime before November, she looks likely to succeed in that effort.

In addition, Trump thrives when he has a foil that he can project his failings on to. As we see every day during this crisis, his incompetence and ignorance are highlighted when forced to confront an enemy that is “invisible”. Pelosi’s rope-a-dope strategy has effectively taken the enemy Trump needs away from him, while at the same time she herself easily gets under his skin.

In many ways, Pelosi’s approach, and so far Biden’s it seems, has reprised George Pataki’s sucessful bid for governor in New York in 1994. Pataki basically ran a stealth campaign, avoiding taking any substantive or controversial positions, hiding from the media, and making the election solely a referendum on the unpopular Mario Cuomo who was seeking his fourth term, while presenting himself as a safe and sensible alternative. Like Pataki, Pelosi has stayed out of the way and made the 2020 election a referendum on Trump. There is a certain irony in that, since the Democratic and media mantra preceding the 2018 election was that Democrats needed to do more than just run against Trump.

Wielding political power requires winning political power first. Pelosi did that in 2018. And, in normal times, she was always going to have to make the best of a bad situation with the Republicans in control of the Senate and Trump in the White House. But at almost every juncture where Pelosi has had maximum leverage, she has avoided using it. Perhaps that may be because there is no such thing as leverage over a nihilistic extremist cult that doesn’t care how many people have to die in order to get re-elected. But is especially infuriating when we remember the eight years of obstruction under Obama, the endless BENGHAZI! hearings, and the 60 or so times the House voted to repeal the ACA purely as a messaging strategy.

And yet, Pelosi’s non-confrontational approach is likely to lead to victory in the fall in both the House and Presidential race, with the more remote potential to control the Senate as well. If that were to happen, well, who’s to say her approach was wrong, but at what cost to our democracy, to our citizens, and to the principles and ambitions of the Democratic party.

Every day of the week, I am furious at the murderous thieves in the Republican party and the bully of a child that leads them. Six days a week, I am frustrated by Pelosi for not fighting harder for what progressives believe in and think is necessary. And on the seventh day, I think her non-confrontational approach is the one most guaranteed to win for all of us in November. It’s a conundrum.

Originally published at on April 21, 2020.

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