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Dems can surrender to misogyny, bullying — or keep Nancy Pelosi | Will Bunch

Dems need to grow a spine and rally for Pelosi, who gets the job done.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday.Read moreJ. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ever notice that you never hear anyone at a Trump rally chanting, "Lock HIM up!"? Or that — in a target-rich environment — the one lawmaker that the president constantly berates in public as a "low-IQ individual" is Rep. Maxine Waters, or that the journalists who've received the bitterest Trumpian bile are also black women like April Ryan or Abby Phillip?

It's all women. What's up with that?

And now there's this: How come after a tumultuous midterm election in which the clear winners were House Democrats, who swept more than 35 seats, regained control of the chamber, and — thanks, largely, to a surge in female votes — established dominance in America's suburbs, the only congressional leader fighting for her political life is the woman behind that triumph, Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

Just what is it that other leaders who haven't faced serious challenges — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose endorsed candidates were trounced in Rust Belt states that President Trump won in 2016, or incoming GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, so tied to his party's Nov. 6 debacle, or the Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, so meek in the face of a GOP judiciary takeover — have that the former and perhaps future Speaker Pelosi doesn't have?

Please don't answer out loud.

Next week, there's still a chance — even though betting against Pelosi in a political dogfight is usually a fool's errand — that "insurgent" Democrats from the centrist-right flank of the party will overlook the veteran San Francisco lawmaker's skill as a legislative field general and replace her as House leader. The party's rank-and-file needs to grow … well, a spine, at least — and not give into the kind of misogyny and bullying that put a target on her back in the first place. That means giving America's first-ever female speaker of the House a second crack at the gavel — despite her flaws.

This isn't an easy thing for someone like me, who was an open enthusiast in 2016 for the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and, more important, for the challenge that he represented to the tired Democratic status quo. In some ways, Pelosi has long seemed an avatar for the ways that Democrats have lost focus in the 21st century — too eager to fund campaigns through large corporate donors, and too timid and all preachy bipartisan in an era when a take-no-prisoners Republican Party was out for blood on the floor of the Capitol.

Post-2016 and the GOP takeover of the entire federal apparatus, Pelosi — who'll turn 79 in March — seemed the antithesis of the Democrats' need for new blood, and her political caution — stating in no uncertain terms that impeachment of Trump is not currently on the table, for example — felt at times like a dousing of cold water on a resistance movement that was the new soul of the party.

But this month's midterm elections cast a new light on many things — including the case for Pelosi's continued leadership. The Democrats' retaking of the House was fueled by women voters, especially in places like the Philadelphia suburbs, where four female newcomers were elected — furious both at the blatant sexism of the Trump political movement and the casual dismissal of qualified, get-it-done women. Dumping Pelosi now would be adding a 2018 insult to a voting bloc that was so injured in 2016. As for that new blood, the revitalized Democratic Congress has that a-plenty in the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lucy McBath, Sharice Davids, and many more.

Those new voices will only be amplified by someone with actual experience in getting a bill passed.

In fact, criticism of Pelosi's leadership seems bizarre when the men who've done the same job most recently — Republicans like Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and convicted sex creep Dennis Hastert — have all done it so badly. Ryan, for example, had a large majority and a GOP president and yet enacted only one major bill — a tax cut geared heavily toward billionaires and big corporate donors, which for Republicans is like kicking an 18-yard field goal. Both Ryan and Boehner flubbed vote counts and wrangled their GOP members as if they were herding cats.

Pelosi, without making a lot of noise, shepherded a dozen significant bills through the House during her four years as speaker, including Wall Street regulation, the end of don't-ask-don't-tell curbs on LGBT troops, and major infrastructure spending — but her crowning achievement was the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Many Democrats were ready to throw in the towel on a universal health-care plan after the party lost a Senate election and its supermajority in a January 2010 special election in Massachusetts.

Pelosi came up with the plan to save it. "We don't say a state that already has health care [Massachusetts] should determine whether the rest of the country should," Pelosi said at the time. "We will get the job done. I'm very confident." For all of Obamacare's flaws, her work added millions of Americans to insurance rolls — and saved lives in the process.

Now there's a possibility that a posse as small as 16 Democrats may have just enough votes next week to throw that kind of law-making experience out the window. You'll be shocked to learn that most of the 16 — 14, to be exact — are men, and they hail largely from the center-right wing. Progressives — while well aware of the imperfections articulated above — have made their peace with Pelosi's leadership and are gaining key committee slots and influence on crucial issues like climate change.

What's really going on? For one thing, many of these men opposing Pelosi seem to have the same vague and not-well-expressed concerns that too many voters harbored about Hillary Clinton two years ago — the foggy notion that animates, in the loosest sense of the word, the demands for the 76-year-old Joe Biden to bring back those blue-collar men in 2020 and save the party with testosterone.

The Washington Post's brilliant satirist Alexandra Petri gave a voice to the anti-Pelosi crowd in her irony-drenched op-ed this week. "I can't wait to vote for a woman in 2020," she mimicked. "A nameless, shapeless, faceless woman I know nothing about who will surely be perfect."

But the problem is more than just old-fashioned sexism. An unspoken truth of American politics is that today's Southern-heavy GOP is the heir to a tradition of political bullying that predates the Civil War, while today's Democrats are the inheritors, sadly, to the breed of politicians who allow themselves to be bullied. For nearly two decades, Republicans have painted a cartoon version of Nancy Pelosi — ultra-left-wing San Francisco puppeteer — and successfully sold that version to the "Lock her up!" crowd, hanging it around the neck of new Democrats so they won't have to talk about uncomfortable topics like flagging health coverage or wages.

Rather than defend Pelosi as a mainstream Democrat who shares the bulk of their values, too many of these candidates promise they will vote against Pelosi if they get to Washington — anything to make the beatings stop! Now, enough of these Democrats have actually won, despite their cowardice, so that their very first act of the new Congress will be to do the Republicans' bidding — to prove for the umpteenth time that the Dems are in fact a "party in disarray."

Meanwhile, you know who's an unabashed supporter of Nancy Pelosi for speaker? Donald Trump. Of course America's misogynist-in-chief wants to lock horns with a woman speaker for the next two years. Hillary won't be on the ballot in 2020, and those "Lock her up" chants don't write themselves, do they?

But here's the thing: Democrats should relish this conflict, because in the real world Cadet Bone Spurs shouldn't be much of a challenge for a proven fighter like Pelosi. Another speakership for Pelosi will show the world that today's Democrats really are a party of change — that, for once, they actually have a little self-respect.