House Republicans have met the enemy — and she isn’t Nancy Pelosi.
As Democrats settle in on Rush Limbaugh as their Man in Black, GOP leaders are concluding that the speaker of the House doesn’t quite rise to the same political devil level.
Their solution: Goodbye, Nancy, Hello, Barack.
Former House Republican Majority Leader Tom Delay, speaking on MSNBC Tuesday night, summed up frustrations with using Pelosi as a proxy, urging his party to go after President Obama directly, even if it means locking horns with the most popular political figure in the country.
“This whole notion that we’re not going to take on Obama but take on Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid will get you nowhere,” The Hammer told Chris Mathews.
“That’s a minority mindset of playing on the ball field of the left. You need to stand up and fight. And that’s what Rush is doing and why people are gravitating towards him and support him.”
Delay’s remarks dovetailed with ongoing internal Republican discussions, which culminated Wednesday in Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) instructing members to ditch “triangulation” when criticizing the president’s budget — by going after Obama directly.
Boehner heeded his own advice, going on Fox Wednesday afternoon to slam the White House for picking on Limbaugh “to draw attention from what was going on here in Washington.”
The tactical shift is partly out of logic: While Republicans hammered Pelosi for the $787 billion stimulus package, that plan started in the House and was touted as a joint Obama-Pelosi production. The budget, to which Congress turns next, is all Obama’s.
But GOP strategists say the change has a lot to do with Pelosi’s shortcomings as a target, too. For starters, the speaker isn’t as passionately loved or despised as Limbaugh — and she’s far less prone to seek out controversy, spending most of her time on the arcane, unglamorous work of keeping a fractious Democratic caucus together.
And there’s another thing that makes her harder to hate on, Republicans say — she’s a grandmother of eight.
“Pelosi’s a particularly tough demographic to demonize,” says a senior Republican strategist who has okayed several anti-Pelosi ads during the 2006 campaign.
“She’s a woman, and she’s of a certain age level, and that’s a demographic both parties are trying to court. She just doesn’t evoke that same kind of visceral reaction [as Limbaugh]. She’s not a big, bellowing heavyset guy who is prone to controversial statements.”
Asked to gauge the impact of dozens of anti-Pelosi ads and mailings created by the GOP in the past three election cycles, the consultant replied, “Bleh. Nothing.”
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s top adviser in 1992 and a longtime Pelosi watcher, said vitriol toward the speaker is confined to a relatively small corner of the GOP base and hasn’t yet crossed over to independents or conservative Democrats.
“Our recent history in this country is we look for ‘hooks,’ people who get you really fired up — Ted Kennedy, Newt Gingrich, Hillary Clinton,” Carville said. “People come in and out and we try out these hooks on ’em. It works for some people and for some people it doesn’t. Delay could never quite get there. And I think Speaker Pelosi doesn’t rise to that level either.”
That’s not to say that Pelosi doesn’t provide a tempting target for the right — with her history of fierce partisanship and liberal positions on abortion, immigration and Iraq. She draws as much fire on the conservative talk circuit for her San Francisco style — the coiffure, the designer clothes and her husband’s Paul’s wealth and investments.
Nobody has been a harsher critic of Pelosi than Limbaugh himself. In early 2007, shortly after Pelosi was elected speaker, Limbaugh mocked claims her ascendance was a victory for women: “Yes, you see, ladies and gentlemen, this is a triumph of feminism and estrogen. ... And ladies, the long 200-year national nightmare without a woman at the top is now over.”
A few months later, he ridiculed a House Democrat who said Pelosi had been an inspiration to his two-year-old daughter. “Look at Ms. Pelosi. Why, she can multitask. She can breastfeed, she can clip her toenails, she can direct the House, all while the kids are sitting on her lap at the same time.”
Still, attempts to capitalize on her unpopularity with the conservative base have yielded mixed results at best. The GOP churned out dozens of TV and radio ads and direct mail pieces in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 elections, linking Southern and Midwestern Democrats to Pelosi’s “San Francisco” values.
The result in 2006 and 2008 “were historical pick-ups and the biggest Democratic majority in a generation,” says Chris Van Hollen, a Pelosi ally who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Yet even with Boehner’s instruction, it’s unlikely that Pelosi will disappear as a Republican target — if for no other reason than she polls so poorly with the Republican base.
“In terms of a target, she’s right just below the level [of Newt Gingrich and Hillary Clinton],” says Ron Bonjean, former communications director for ex-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ohio). “But ... that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t [target her].”