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How Nancy Pelosi is helping Republicans win

  • Nancy Pelosi is becoming an albatross for Democrats trying to get elected in the age of Trump.
  • Pelosi's fundraising comments raise more questions about her leadership ability in the current environment.
  • Pelosi has been subject to crudely sexist attacks, as is the case with most highly visible women in the public sphere, but the problems with her tenure run much deeper.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on June 15, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on June 15, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Last month, I was covering the Montana special congressional election, another much-ballyhooed attempt by the Democratic Party to regain its electoral footing. Their candidate, Rob Quist, lost in painstaking fashion; local officials grumbled afterwards that the national party apparatus hadn't devoted sufficient resources to the effort.

The consensus view at the time maintained that any excess hand-wringing was premature, because Jon Ossoff's bid in Georgia's 6th congressional district was always going to be a much better opportunity for Democrats to finally notch a clear victory.

That wasn't to be. Ossoff lost his bid for the district by a greater margin than Hillary Clinton lost by in November 2016, despite a huge influx of donor money and media attention. Republican voter enthusiasm seems to have surged beyond what prognosticators had forecast. But one theme remained the same between the two races: a lingering sense that the specter of Nancy Pelosi was making Democratic candidates' jobs needlessly difficult.

As I canvassed voters heading to the polls in Montana, I was struck by the frequency with which folks cited aversion to Pelosi as the reason why they'd backed the Republican, Greg Gianforte, even if they might've had reservations about him and/or the campaign he'd ran. One man repeated a particularly cutting line to me almost verbatim, one which had appeared in a slew of Gianforte ads: "I don't care what they say," the man said, as if the words had been programmed into him by a local GOP operative. "A vote for Rob Quist is a vote for Nancy Pelosi."

"Pelosi's reportedly unrivaled fundraising prowess necessarily means that she's been ensconced for a very long time in the Democratic Party donor class, absorbing by osmosis their worldview and attendant pathologies."

Across the country, the Democratic leadership is widely viewed as stultified and rudderless, and it ought not be surprising that this can have a deleterious effect on candidates like Ossoff and Quist. True, when such grievances are expressed by conservatives, they can often come across as routine, partisan demonization. But one can view Pelosi as seriously flawed without countenancing the cruder Republican attacks.

For one thing, take Pelosi's own central argument for herself: "I'm the biggest fundraiser in the country," she proclaimed last week.

Well, maybe so. But Hillary Clinton was also an excellent fundraiser, raking in record contributions from Democratic benefactors. Unfortunately, aptitude for hobnobbing with finance executives at soirees in the Hamptons, Beverly Hills, and Martha's Vineyard proved not to be the most formidable electoral strategy. Like Clinton, Pelosi's reportedly unrivaled fundraising prowess necessarily means that she's been ensconced for a very long time in the Democratic Party donor class, absorbing by osmosis their worldview and attendant pathologies.

Pelosi's fundraising knack might help line the party's coffers and enrich its affiliated consultants, but it shows that she's immersed in an increasingly outmoded style of politics -- the kind where ability to rub elbows with wealthy technocrats is seen as a supremely coveted skill. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign showed that alternate models of raising funds are eminently attainable; it just takes the right personnel and message.

"I'm a master legislator," Pelosi boasted last week, with curiously Trumpian braggadocio. "I am a strategic, politically astute leader, my leadership is recognized by many around the country, and that is why I'm able to attract the support that I do."

It's rather amazing that someone leading the Democratic Party at this moment could look out on the current landscape and view their strategic acumen as having been vindicated. But if the case for retaining Pelosi is that she's the Democrat best positioned to extract financial largesse from rich people, you can see how her analysis might have gotten slightly distorted.

Clinging to power for 14 years, as Pelosi has, necessarily is borne of some arrogance and refusal to engage in self-criticism. Interestingly, when the right-wing of the Republican Party grew disenchanted with John Boehner a few years ago, they were able to dispose of him without much trouble. Democrats, on the other hand, appear calcified and irrationally resistant to change.

It's not just the fundraising question. On foreign policy, for instance, Pelosi (along with the rest of the Democratic congressional leadership) has chosen to align with Trump, backing his April airstrike on a Syrian government airfield.

In January, she told a Yemeni woman during a CNN town hall that her people's plight came down to the reckless actions of Trump, who then had been in office for a mere 11 days; Pelosi evinced no awareness that the foreign policy machinations of the previous administration -- with Pelosi's tacit support -- had created a dire situation in Yemen.

In March she denounced the American media as "accomplices" in the alleged Russian effort to "undermine" the 2016 election. For all the talk about how Trump has ginned up a hostile climate for the press, statements like Pelosi's are equally authoritarian and chilling.

These comments seem to reflect a kind of unthinking, partisan gamesmanship on Pelosi's part that people are justifiably fed up with.

The Democrat-aligned media ecosystem is stuck in a cycle where any of these criticisms will inevitably be attributed to some latent sexism that somehow holds Pelosi to an unfair standard. And it could hardly be denied that Pelosi has been subject to crudely sexist attacks, as is the case with most highly visible women in the public sphere. But the problems with her tenure run much deeper, and are less about Pelosi as an individual than the antiquated, detached political style she embodies.

If she steps down, it won't necessarily resolve the systemic issues besetting the Democrats. But it might be a start.

Commentary by Michael Tracey, a reporter for The Young Turks. He was previously a columnist for VICE, covering both the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns, civil liberties, American religion, political corruption, foreign policy, and more. He's also been a contributor to the New York Daily News, The Daily Beast, The American Conservative, The Nation, Mediaite, The Intercept, Rolling Stone, Current Affairs, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ mtracey.

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