A ruthless, head-patting grandma finally gets her due

Nancy Pelosi broke all the rules for women in politics — and won

Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear during her shutdown standoff with the president that raising five children had prepared her for the job, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear during her shutdown standoff with the president that raising five children had prepared her for the job, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 29, 2019 at 5:02am

OPINION — There was a time not long ago when women in politics were counseled never to speak about their children, if they were moms. A woman needed to seem strong enough for the job. Especially for the male consultants in the room, being a mom read “too soft,” maybe even too weak.

But among the other bragging rights that Speaker Nancy Pelosi can continue to collect after last week’s schooling of President Donald Trump in the government shutdown fight, Pelosi can claim this too: For the first time in American history, the most powerful person in the country is a woman. And not only did Pelosi not downplay her role as a mother and a grandmother in the process, she made it clear during the shutdown standoff against Trump that raising five children before her career in politics may actually have made her uniquely prepared for the job she holds and the president she’s dealing with.

That Pelosi used the language of child-rearing to do it made it downright delicious for more than a few women around the country. “I’m a mother of five, grandmother of nine,” Pelosi said of the president after he stormed out of a West Wing meeting with Democrats that had been meant to hammer out an end to the standoff. “I know a temper tantrum when I see one.”

When Pelosi earlier pulled the president’s invitation to deliver the State of the Union until after the government reopened, she likewise described her decision as “a housekeeping matter.” In December, as Republicans balked at the conditions Democrats had put on voting for a continuing resolution, she observed the GOP as being “in the middle of a meltdown.” Watch a toddler lose it in the cereal aisle and you’ll know exactly what she meant. None of it is a compliment, but coming from a grandma whose little ones call her “Mimi,” Pelosi’s language about the president seemed especially belittling. And effective.

Patting her opponents on the head has in fact been one of Pelosi’s most reliable and effective tools as she has risen to power, but Trump seems to be the most appropriate (and oblivious) to get the Mimi treatment.

In 2017, she suggested the president might start trying to do his job better “with a good night’s sleep.” On climate change, she once said “almost every school child in America knows more about the climate challenge than the president of the United States.” When Trump criticized her earlier this month for going to Hawaii after Christmas during the shutdown, she retorted, “The president may not know this, but Hawaii is part of the United States of America.” As if telling a preschooler something especially exciting, she added, “Hawaii has airports and airlines and telephones.”

Of course, Pelosi isn’t your average grandma. And she’s not your average soccer mom, security mom, “Panera mom” or whatever tag pollsters come up with every four years to describe women with children. On the morning she was sworn in as speaker for the second time, Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra told CNN viewers what Trump should expect in his future negotiations. “She’ll cut your head off and you won’t even know you’re bleeding,” she said, meaning it as the compliment I am sure the speaker took it as.

True to her daughter’s prediction, the president and his advisers did not seem to know they had lost the first shutdown fight to Pelosi until it was too late. As the House and Senate Democrats stayed united through the end of last week, GOP senators began to signal they wouldn’t stay with Trump as the shutdown dragged on even while Trump insisted he would never give in. But when news broke at the end of the week that LaGuardia airport had a ground stop because of a lack of air traffic controllers, Trump capitulated quickly without any of the demands he was holding out for. Pelosi had come out on top.

You know someone in Washington is really breaking through when the conversation in the stands at a 6-year-olds’ basketball game in Georgia revolves around the speaker of the House, but that was exactly what I heard on the night the government shutdown ended.

“Did you see what Pelosi did to Trump?” a Republican friend asked me with a laugh. “Ouch.” “It was like, ‘Not in my house!’” another said to me later. After nearly a decade of being parodied in GOP ads, the rest of the country was seeing a different side of Pelosi as she dealt with Trump’s meltdowns, tantrums and outbursts. For any mom of toddlers, it was more than a little familiar.

The question now is what Pelosi and the Democrats can do with the win they’ve gotten and what the president will do in response. Word came Monday night that the speaker has reinvited Trump to give his State of the Union address next week now that the government has reopened — a promising sign that adult conversations may resuming between the House and the White House.

But the damage to the economy from the shutdown is far from over. The CBO estimated that the shutdown took $8 billion out of the economy this quarter, and $3 billion in GDP will likely never be recouped. Somehow, Pelosi, the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will also have to come to an agreement on whatever the 17-member conference committee comes up with to get past the next funding deadline less than three weeks away.

The House will also continue to move ahead on the priorities that Democrats laid out during the campaign, including anticorruption legislation, lowering prescription drug prices, addressing infrastructure and closing the pay gap between men and women. For what may be the first time in her career, Pelosi will have an audience of moms and grandmas, nodding along, watching every move.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

‘No one should ever underestimate the speaker’: Democrats claim victory after shutdown agreement

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