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Roll Call

Pelosi Finds Her Footing as Democrats’ Attack Dog

Tom Williams/Roll Call
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has spent recent weeks trying to re-establish herself as the Democrats’ leading messenger.

Two months on the job as Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi has been working vigorously to raise her profile and reassert herself as one of the nation’s most powerful Democrats. 

In the weeks leading up to the November elections, the California liberal — whom Republicans worked hard to make a liability for vulnerable Democratic incumbents — kept an uncharacteristically low profile: She avoided public events and focused most of her attention on fundraising. 

Pelosi continued to embrace that posture during last year’s marathon lame-duck session, when she faced a challenge for Minority Leader from moderate Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.). Pelosi prevailed, but Shuler, a Blue Dog Democrat, won the backing of nearly one-fourth of the Caucus. 

But since then, Democratic sources say Pelosi has moved aggressively to re-
establish herself as her party’s top messenger and shore up Member loyalties. 

“Obviously it’s a new job for her, and she’s got to figure out the best way to help her Caucus, and the best way to do that is to get out there in the public as much as possible and defend the position her party is taking,” said Steve Elmendorf, former chief of staff to then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.). “Now your job is much more about message than it is about getting things done. ... You have to make the case for why in two years they should put you back in the majority.”

It’s a role Pelosi is familiar with: She served as Minority Leader from 2003 to 2007. In recent weeks, she has accused Republicans of doing nothing to promote jobs, defended the Democrats’ health care law and championed the idea that the new Republican majority is acting at the behest of special interests. 

She has staged a series of mock hearings, held numerous press conferences and delivered a series of speeches to hammer home those themes, with an eye toward gaining back control of the House in two years, her allies say. 

At the latest unofficial, Democrat-only hearing Monday — which focused on investing in clean energy as a way to promote jobs — Pelosi blasted Republicans for backing subsidies for large oil companies at taxpayers’ expense, adding, “We must change course now.” 

Pelosi also has staged mock hearings to highlight Democrats’ commitment to infrastructure investment and to talk about the positive aspects of the health care law.  The goal of the sessions, organized by the Steering and Policy Committee, is to demonstrate how Democrats would govern if they were back in the majority and how they differ from Republicans. 

During last month’s debate on the Republicans’ continuing resolution, which cut or zeroed out funding for numerous Democratic programs, Pelosi made several appearances on the floor, railing against the spending reductions and against amendments aimed at defunding the health care law.

Pelosi also spoke in favor of an amendment offered by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a close ally, that would have forced public disclosure of foreign campaign contributors. The Minority Leader said the proposal would help stem the tide of “secret unlimited corporate spending and influence over our campaigns and our public policy debates.”

Pelosi also has recast her weekly press conferences to focus solely job creation.

“She got us as a Caucus to recognize the differences between being in the majority and the minority. ... To try to get across your point, you don’t get as many opportunities,” Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said.

Still, not everyone is on board with Pelosi’s hard-line approach. Some moderates are concerned that she is catering too much to the party’s liberal base and that her approach will not help Democrats win back those independent voters that abandoned them in November. 

“She’s not speaking to the voters that walked away from us; she’s speaking to the base,” said a senior Democratic aide with ties to moderates. “Voters want bipartisanship. ... She’s still defending every aspect of the health care law when we know voters don’t like every aspect of the health care law.”

One former House Democratic leadership aide observed that Pelosi “cast a pretty big shadow at the time of the lame duck and the first couple weeks of the Republican majority.”

“So I think it was smart of her to step back,” the aide said, noting that Pelosi delegated some of the public messaging responsibilities, especially early in the session, to trusted allies such as Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.). 

Going forward, the former staffer said, Pelosi “needs to be very strategic on when she steps forward and stands in the spotlight.” 

But many who work closely with the Minority Leader don’t expect her to tone it down, either in public or behind the scenes. 

“She’s a hands-on person. That’s just her personality,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “That’s her leadership style and will continue to be her leadership style.”

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