Updated: Jan 4
June 18, 2017
WASHINGTON — Marking her 30th anniversary in Congress, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sees a peculiar alignment of history and politics taking shape. In the 2006 midterm election, that alignment made the San Francisco Democrat speaker of the House. In the 2010 midterms, it toppled her into the minority.
These forces are again aligning — one party in control of Washington, led by a president with sagging popularity, in this case one with record unpopularity, facing FBI and multiple other investigations and an inability to enact the legislation he promised despite this party’s control of the House and Senate.
“History is on our side,” Pelosi told The Chronicle last week in an interview in her offices just outside the House chamber.
More than investigations or even impeachment, winning back control of the House in the 2018 midterms would disrupt the governing capacity of the Trump White House, just as the GOP takeover of the House in 2010 crippled President Barack Obama’s presidency and Democratic victories in 2006 paralyzed the remainder of President George W. Bush’s second term.
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. Pelosi fielded questions about about former FBI Director James Comey's Thursday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats next year to retake the House, and typically, when the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, “the average seat gain for opposing party is 36 seats,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.
Trump’s popularity is a shade lower than Bush’s in the 2006 midterms, during the depths of the Iraq War. And it is substantially lower than Obama’s in the 2010 midterms. Both Bush and Obama were below 50 percent approval at the time, but Trump’s current 38 percent is a record low for a president just six months into his term.
Yet some analysts say a split between mainstream Democrats and the party’s Bernie Sanders liberal wing could undermine the advantage, just as it worked against the party in the general election in November when Hillary Clinton failed to arouse the passions of Sanders’ supporters.
“It reminds me of a Greek tragedy,” said San Jose State University political scientist Larry Gerston. “In the first page you hear all about the stuff that’s going to happen. You read the whole book believing it can’t possibly happen. And in the last page, it happens. That’s what the Democrats are going through right now. One would think that they learned something from the last election, but in fact the chasm has only widened.”
Pelosi brushed the notion aside.
“That’s an interesting conversation,” she said. “But the great abyss, the chasm that exists between Donald Trump and any Democrat is so vast. He happens to be one of the great unifiers and one of the great organizers for the Democrats.”
With Obama out of office, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are now the party’s leaders. Pelosi said she welcomes the re-energized left and sees it as a “source of strength.”
“Look, I was a party chair,” in California, before entering Congress in 1987, she said. “I was one of the big complainers. When you’re an activist, you’re never satisfied. By your nature, you are dissatisfied, relentless and persistent. And you hope to move the debate to where you are.”
But once in office, she said, “you have to make some choices” that may not satisfy the party’s more liberal wing.
Gerston said the risk is that some in the Sanders wing “do not want to come into the party as much as they want to remake the party. They may succeed in doing that, but they will lose several elections along the way first.”
Trump’s presidency has sobered people, Pelosi said. “I’ve never seen such a reaction to an election all the years I’ve been involved,” she said. “People just see the urgency, they want to take responsibility.
“People who have never helped the House — we’re not the glamour, we’re not the White House, we’re not the Senate — now are coming to us and saying, you have to win. We will help.”
Still, the fights in the party are real, and many hunger for a fresh message. Freshman Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Fremont, has been among the most vocal about it, advocating for what he calls an “aspirational populism” to attract working-class people in both parties.
Khanna is pushing “Medicare-for-all” single-payer health care, apprenticeship programs, wider access to college and a $1 trillion tax credit that he says “would basically be a raise for working families of 20 percent.”
Pelosi agreed that Democrats need a stronger message, and blamed Obama for not making the case for what Democrats had already done to help working families.
“We walk the walk, all we did is fight the fight here,” she said. “But we didn’t talk the talk, so people didn’t really know” in part because Obama “never talked about them. Never talked about the Affordable Care Act. Now he does. But not then.”
She said the new agenda for the 2018 campaign will emerge from a member consensus. “Has to spring from them,” she said. “It’s not, I put this down on a piece of paper and give it to them.”
Abramowitz called Democratic divisions “greatly overblown.”
Democrats have yet to win any of the special election contests to fill seats vacated by members now serving in Trump’s cabinet, but a big test will come Tuesday in Atlanta, where Democrat John Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are facing off for a seat vacated by Republican Tom Price, now Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary.
Polls are tight. Ossoff is running as a centrist, yet “it doesn’t seem to be hurting him with the Democratic base here,” Abramowitz said.
“He’s raised millions of dollars from Democrats all over the country, small contributions, which tells me that there is no lack of enthusiasm,” he said.
Pelosi has figured prominently in the race. Repeating their 2010 strategy, Republicans are tying Ossoff to her in an effort to block him from getting the 10 to 15 percent of the Republican vote he will need to win, Abramowitz said.
Republicans are “showing pictures of San Francisco and supposed voters in San Francisco who look like hippies,” he said, “talking about how they love Ossoff.”
Pelosi said the ads show Republicans “don’t have any ideas.”
But she sees Trump as working to the Democrats’ advantage in 2018, dismissing his lure to GOP voters, calling him “grossly overestimated.”
Leadership requires discipline, vision, purpose and knowledge, she said.
“Why does he want to be president?” she asked. “You have to ... know what you’re talking about, what the challenges are and where to get the knowledge and know what you don’t know — so that people will respect your judgment — instead of tweeting in the middle of the night on the john or wherever he is.”
What Trump does well, she said, “is connect, because he’s a fear monger.”
“Fear, it connects with some people, which is unfortunate,” she said. “All we want to do is talk about what are their legislative proposals, this is what it means, and make the contrast.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead