"Own the center-left. Own the mainstream."
This is the advice — some might even call it a warning — that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been drilling into her caucus of late. If Democrats want to send President Donald Trump packing in 2020, she told The New York Times recently, they must resist being pulled toward the hard, partisan fringes in ways likely to turn off the middle.
Along with a slow and steady course on oversight — no impeachment talk, please! — the speaker is pressing a policy agenda more evolutionary than revolutionary. Democrats dominated the midterms, she said, with a "simple message" of better health care, better jobs and less swampy politics. "We did not engage in some of the other exuberances that exist in our party."
For a clearer definition of "exuberances," see: the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Pelosi's is a cautious prescription — one that, in addition to frustrating the less patient elements of her party, clashes with her long-standing image as a crusading San Francisco liberal. This incongruity flows partly from the fact that her caricature was always just that, a partisan construct Republicans used to fire up their base.
Count it among the ironies of the Trump era: After years of being vilified as the embodiment of "San Francisco values," Pelosi has become the ambassador for political moderation and mainstream policy.
The speaker's politics are progressive, but she's never been a purist. She was born into an old-school Democratic political dynasty in Baltimore. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., served in Congress and as the mayor of Baltimore; her brother Thomas III also had a stint as mayor. Deal-cutting and constituent-tending are in her blood — and were crucial as she sweated, charmed and slashed her way to the head of the congressional boys' club.
Pelosi, to be sure, has always had an edge. In 2002, The Washington Post noted that she'd been in Congress over a decade before trying for a leadership post. "In part it is temperament," The Post wrote. "Pelosi is an unabashed advocate, less comfortable as a conciliator finding a middle road."
But with the energy in today's Democratic Party flowing from the left, Pelosi often finds herself herding her team back toward the center. Whatever her ideological sympathies, she does not intend to let woke progressives damage members from more competitive districts and imperil her majority. The bigger and more diverse the caucus, the harder she has to work to keep it in balance.
Pelosi remains dismissive, in that grandmotherly way of hers, of some of the bolder ideas backed by caucus rabble-rousers. This month, she oversaw the passage of environmental legislation focused on keeping the United States in the Paris agreement on climate change — a far cry from what she dismissed as the "Green Dream or whatever" championed by freshman phenom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Most delicately, Pelosi keeps pumping the brakes on impeachment. In the past week, she has repeatedly charged that the president is "goading" Democrats to go down that politically treacherous road.
Caught between an outrageous president and her outraged base, Pelosi increasingly resembles less a "San Francisco" crusader than the staid grown-up in the room.
All this adulting is playing well with the public. Since Election Day last fall, the speaker's favorability numbers have ticked up, up, up. She has gained 10 points in Civiqs' tracking polls, with similar gains in other surveys.
If this keeps up, Republicans may soon need to experiment with a different line of attack — or find a new nemesis altogether.
The New York Times