You have to hand it to the Democrats. They never pass up an opportunity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
In the latest example, the party is squabbling about Nancy Pelosi’s quest to be elected as Speaker. And Pelosi’s long-standing support for LGBTQ rights is playing a key role in the battle.
Pelosi played a key role in the party’s midterm election success, which resulted in Democrats winnng nearly 40 seats in the House of Representatives. She raised a staggering $135 million for candidates in the midterms, contributing to the avalanche of money that buried Republicans.
Under normal circumstances, that kind of performance would result in a political coronation. Instead, Pelosi is facing insurrection within the party ranks, and it’s not clear that she has the votes to be elected Speaker.
The complaints about Pelosi come from different directions. Seventeen Democrats, mostly men, have signed a letter opposing her. This group largely comes from districts with a sizable Republican presence; their concern about Pelosi is that she isn’t moderate enough and will pull the party too far to the left.
The other group is upset that the Democratic leadership is old (Pelosi is 78) and does not reflect the diversity of the party’s followers. “Where are we recognized?” Rep. Marcia Fudge, who has emerged as a leader of this contingent, asked when talking about black women and House leadership. “If we’re going to have a diverse party, it ought to look like the party.”
Pelosi has endured years of being a GOP target, and some of those attacks have at least subconsciously taken root in the Democratic opposition. Republicans like to paint Pelosi as a wild-eyed liberal, and they do so using an anti-LGBTQ dog whistle. Instead of representing mainstream values, Republicans argue, Pelosi represents “San Francisco values.”
This phrase has been used against Pelosi for years, and it’s still being used regularly by Fox News. Instead of being outwardly phobic, the phrase allows conservatives to conjure up all the lurid images they think of when they picture San Francisco. Those images are almost all associated with the city’s LGBTQ community.
Unfortunately, the opposition from Pelosi’s right buys into this thinly-veiled slur. They fear that Pelosi is so tarnished by years of Republican attacks that the political stench from those attacks will extend to Democrats in more conservative districts.
The other group coming at Pelosi is being led by Fudge, who has a better argument. Pelosi has been leading Democrats in the House for 16 years, including during a previous stint at Speaker. Her lengthy hold on power has frustrated ambitious younger politicians who feel the party leadership shouldn’t resemble an assisted living home.
But Fudge carries her own baggage. She is one of just two Democrats who refused to co-sponsor the Equality Act, which would amend civil rights laws to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Pelosi has promised to make passage of the Equality Act one of her first priorities as Speaker.
Fudge defends her opposition to the Act and says that doesn’t make her anti-LGBTQ. “They can’t find one vote, not one vote, that’s anti” gay rights, Fudge told the Washington Post. “I just don’t want to insert it into the civil rights bill. It should be a stand-alone bill and I’d support that.”
There are two big problems with the opposition to Pelosi. The first is that no one has emerged as an alternative candidate.
The second is the bigger problem. Pelosi is a phenomenally gifted politician. By many accounts, she ranks among the best Speakers of the House in the past 50 years. She singlehandedly steered the passage of Obamacare at a time when Democrats were ready to bail on the bill. Of course, healthcare was one of the major issues that played in the Democrats’ favor in this year’s elections.
In fact, getting rid of Pelosi would be a dream come true for Republicans. Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who launched a “Fire Pelosi” campaign in 2010 when he was with the Republican National Committee, told The New York Times that Pelosi’s skills scared the GOP.
“When I was at the RNC we didn’t launch a ‘Fire Pelosi’ campaign because she was ineffective,” Heye said. “It was because she was effective.”
Political savvy will be essential for Democrats in the next two years as they prepare for the presidential election. Pelosi has already demonstrated she has it in abundance. When Democrats get together in early January to elect the next Speaker, the question facing them will be whether that experience counts more than a fresh start.