The Bloomberg News headline on November 2 was stark: “Nancy Pelosi Is Worried 2020 Candidates Are on Wrong Track.” Wrong track as in, the Democrats are on their way to losing the upcoming presidential election. As reporter Sahil Kapur put it, “Speaker Nancy Pelosi is issuing a pointed message to Democrats running for president in 2020: Those liberal ideas that fire up the party’s base are a big loser when it comes to beating President Donald Trump.”
Among the losing ideas Pelosi cited was Medicare for All. And in fact, the plans of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—each struggling to get to the left of the other in the Democratic primary—are becoming the stuff of both consternation and comedy. Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live mocked Warren’s $52 trillion health plan: “We’re talking trillions! When the numbers are this big, they’re just pretend!”
We can observe: being the butt of jokes about fiscal recklessness is not how one wins a presidential election. Or as Pelosi observed, “Remember November. You must win the Electoral College.”
Invoking her own ideological credentials, Pelosi tossed a sharp query at insurgent Democrats as a whole: “As a left-wing San Francisco liberal I can say to these people: what are you thinking?” As the Bloomberg piece explained, Pelosi was aiming, yet again, at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive “Squad.” Pelosi and the Democratic establishment worry that democratic socialists and Third World-minded radicals will take the party into George-McGovern-in-1972 territory (as this author here at TAC suggested might well happen last year).
Pelosi would certainly seem to know a lot about left-wing liberalism; her most recent rating from Americans for Democratic Action was an A+ 95 percent. Indeed, while she’s old enough to remember poor McGovern, she also remembers, more recently, Walter Mondale. In 1984, the Democrats held their national convention in Pelosi’s hometown, giving Mondale their presidential nomination. Whereupon Republicans gleefully tagged him as a “San Francisco Democrat.” Mondale was from Minnesota, but no matter—he lost 49 states.
Mindful of that baleful history, Pelosi offered a fascinating lesson in political non-transitivity, between her hometown and another Great Lakes state: “What works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan. What works in Michigan works in San Francisco—talking about workers’ rights and sharing prosperity.”
In other words, while one can sell Midwestern mutualism in San Francisco, one can’t sell San Francisco liberalism in Michigan—which is hardly a Republican bastion.
Yet if we look closer at Pelosi’s liberalism, we note something interesting. On strictly economic issues, as distinct from sociocultural issues, she’s not that left-wing. Yes, she describes herself as a “left-wing San Francisco liberal,” but most of her leftism is focused on lifestyle. Her economic style is, in fact, distinctly Clintonian neoliberal. Here’s more from the Bloomberg story: “Pelosi said Democrats must stick with pay-as-you-go rules to avoid adding to the debt, a point of contention with left-leaning figures who want to permit more deficit spending for ambitious liberal priorities. ‘We cannot just keep increasing the debt,’ she said.”
We can note that “pay-go” is about as orthodox an economic nostrum as one can find these days; it’s typically associated with deficit-minded “budget hawks,” of the type funded by the late Pete Peterson, a big-time Republican who crusaded for cuts to earned entitlements.
Indeed, Peterson, who made a small fortune at Lehman Brothers and a big fortune at the Blackstone Group, would have been pleased to read more of what Pelosi had to say. According to Bloomberg, she “stopped short of endorsing a tax on wealth, an idea that Warren and Sanders have embraced as a means to reduce income inequality and expand the safety net.”
One might presume that the 18 billionaires who live in San Francisco were duly pleased by their representative’s restraint. They might be generous donors to the Democratic Party and to other good causes, and thus have proven their commitment to social justice. Thus they need to conserve their capital, to continue their good works—that’s Pelosi’s fat cat-friendly position.
Moreover, it’s not just billionaires that Pelosi is looking out for; in addition, she’s protective of mere millionaires. Per Bloomberg: “She also steered clear of backing a cap on pay for chief executive officers.”
Yes, in that same interview, Pelosi called Donald Trump’s 2017 tax-cut bill “dumb”—and that will check the box for Democratic partisans and inattentive ideologues.
But then she added something curiously centrist. She said she wanted any changes in the tax bill to be aimed at lowering the debt and to be “bipartisan.” To those paying close attention, these are signal code words, suggesting, yet again, that Pelosi sees any possible tax increase as a deficit reduction tool, as opposed to added fiscal support for a spending spree. Moreover, in saying that she wants any revision of the tax bill to be bipartisan, she’s making Republicans integral to the process—and that can’t be pleasing to AOC-type tax-raisers.
Nobody’s accusing Pelosi of being a conservative. Yet her legendary leftism does seem to be curiously concentrated in the lifestyle area—especially the San Francisco area. For instance, there’s the Equality Act, which Pelosi identifies as a top legislative priority, even as Republicans have so far blocked it. In the words of the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson, the bill would
force employers to cover abortion, and medical professionals to perform or assist in performing abortions…force employers to pay for sex “reassignment” procedures in their health insurance plans, and require medical professionals to perform them. . . . force all schools and businesses to open their women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and sports teams to boys who “identify as” girls and to men who “identify as” women.
That’s a tall order of social liberalism, or, as some might prefer to describe it, left-wing hegemonism.
Indeed, bills such as the Equality Act are so egregious and extreme that one might begin to suspect that they serve a purpose beyond advancing the goals of Planned Parenthood and Drag Queen Story Hour. And what purpose might that be? Perhaps Pelosi seeks to cloak her neoliberal economic agenda in the bright raiment of avant-garde sexual progressivism. That would be sort of a neat trick, right? That is, Pelosi has carpentered a platform that includes planks favorable to both tycoons and transgenders—and yet the pro-trans plank is what generates the most headlines, pro and con. To put it another way: the LGBTQ-friendly plank obscures the billionaire-friendly plank.
Pelosi is a smart woman. She’s been around politics all her life; both her father and brother were mayors of Baltimore. So if she’s found a new kind of high-low political formula—combining the rich and the risqué—it’s surely not an accident. And it’s certainly working for her: she was re-elected last year to her 17th term by a 73 percent margin. She has, in fact, engineered a new kind of Democratic political machine, one that’s also working in other big cities.
There’s just one thing: as Pelosi herself says, the San Francisco model can’t sell in Michigan and, by extension, in probably 35 other states. So in 2020, if the Democrats continue to lurch left, on both economic and cultural issues, they could well find themselves McGovern-ized, or Mondale-ized.
For her part, Pelosi will say that she tried to warn them: think Michigan Wolverines, she said, not San Francisco drag queens. Yet even if the Democrats lose the presidential election next year, Pelosi will survive, continuing to be a best friend to both billionaires and drag queens. Of course, Pelosi, 79, can’t be their best friend forever, yet it’s a safe bet that her successor will try to follow the same model.
As we have seen, it’s questionable whether the Pelosi Model helps the Democratic Party as a whole. But for those financing it, and flaunting it, it’s working just fine.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.