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The Costs of Dropping Pelosi

There are a few points that Democrats uncomfortable with Nanci Pelosi's leadership might want to consider before urging her to retire.
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

There's been quite a bit of recent media coverage suggesting the House of Representatives is the Democrats' for the taking—if only they can cut loose their minority leader, Nancy Pelosi. The sense of negativity surrounding the Democratic stalwart has, to the surprise of no one, been leveraged by the GOP in various attack ads: The Washington Post reported on Friday that Republicans are running numerous ads in swing contests trying to tie their Democratic opponents to Pelosi. Ken Spain, a longtime GOP pollster, told the Post that Democrats are "going to leave seats on the table" as long as Pelosi is seen as the party's leader:

In a race that was decided by 1,000 or 1,500 votes, that was probably a difference-maker. It could be the difference between having a razor-thin majority and a governing majority. It's a lot easier to move legislation when you have a cushion of votes to work with.

The Post piece notes some Democratic candidates are unwilling to publicly support Pelosi as speaker of the house, a role for which she would be extremely qualified (she held the role from 2007 to 2011).

A few points on all this. First, yes, let's stipulate that Pelosi is unpopular. She has an approval rating of 29 percent. The last time she left the speaker's office, she had a net favorability of -28—a 30-point drop from when she started as speaker.

But let's give these figures some context. Pelosi's approval rating is five points above that of Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's. Her net approval as speaker, and the sharp drop in that figure during her speakership, was very similar to the figures for John Boehner and Paul Ryan. (Boehner dropped 35 points during his speakership, leaving with a net favorability of -32; Ryan has dropped 32 points, departing with a net favorability of -23.)

And yes, as Paul Krugman notes, the GOP (and some allies in the media) has been attempting to demonize her for years. But the simple fact is that whoever holds a leadership job in Congress is going to be unpopular. Congress has around a 19 percent approval rating right now, and that's actually pretty good for recent history. It's not a popular branch of government, nor is it designed to be. Individual members tend to be relatively popular in their districts, but they often run for office by promising to exorcise a possessed institution, and voters hear and see plenty of negative attributes of Congress without seeing much of its functionality. So yes, its leaders will be unpopular.

To that end, yes, Republicans treat Pelosi like a punching bag. But it's hardly unusual for a party to create a bogeyman through a prominent person on the other side. Democrats right now are tying their opponents to President Donald Trump all over the country. This is simply what parties do in campaigns. To be sure, attacks on Pelosi are part of a long tradition of telling powerful women over 50 to go away (see Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, et al.), but they are also part of a long tradition of scaremongering-as-politics.

There are a few points that Democrats uncomfortable with Pelosi's leadership might want to consider before urging her to retire. First, regardless of her public image or speaking skills, she is a very effective legislative leader. Unusually so. Barack Obama's first two years in office saw more progress on key issues for the president's party than almost any other session in the past half century, and Pelosi is a lot of the reason why. Those who say it's easy to enact a president's agenda when their party controls Congress should review Ryan and McConnell's record over the past two years. There's certainly no guarantee Pelosi's replacement would be so effective.

Second, imagine that Pelosi announced next week that she will step down from legislative leadership. Do Democrats suppose that Republicans will cease criticizing their party at that point? Or will Republicans just start mocking the Democratic leadership as being in disarray, and then immediately commence with their campaign to turn the next speaker into a liberal pariah?

Third, just what evidence do we have that the speaker's popularity affects mid-term elections? We know that mid-term elections are affected strongly by the president's popularity and the performance of the economy. It's hard to test whether the speaker's unpopularity affects mid-terms because the speaker is basically always unpopular. Is there a chance that demonizing a speaker can move a few votes and affect the outcome of a close race? Well, sure, it's possible, but this just has to be way down on the list of things that could actually change votes. And not only might dropping Pelosi not be a slam dunk in terms of winning over a few voters given how Republicans would attack the disarray and the next speaker, but it might end up demobilizing a few voters who don't like to see an experienced woman tossed over the side to appease people who aren't even in that party.

Of course, the chances are that, as Jonathan Bernstein notes, this is a non-issue, and the election will be a referendum on the president, as mid-term elections usually are.