There are many cults in Washington, D.C. The Founding Church of Scientology sits between Dupont and Logan Circles. The earth-worshiping Defenders of Wildlife are just a few blocks south, their entrance guarded by imposing bronze grey wolves. One block north, the Human Rights Campaign dispatches starry-eyed adherents with clipboards to recruit followers, and to the east lie the child-harvesters. Two blocks away, the remnants of the Church of Her keep Hillary’s flame burning; and crowning them all: the mighty cult of SoulCycle.
But today, the city has another faith working reporters into a fervor, and her name is Nancy Pelosi.
Reporters have called her “basically invincible,” a “political grandmaster,” an “icon of female power,” a “rockstar” and, time and time again, “a fashion icon.” Reporters have venerated “her clothes, her hand gestures, her facial expression” and placed a halo ’round her head. Activists projected her image on San Francisco’s city hall and a D.C. restaurant dedicated a Christmas tree in her honor.
“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing to President Donald Trump what no one else has in the nearly three years since he took office: She’s making him squirm.” Business Insider pronounced two days after Christmas. “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has managed to accomplish what no one else has even tried in the past three years: sticking it right back to Trump,” RawStory echoed the same day in an article that includes “squirm” in its headline.
Time magazine featured her portrait on its cover this month for the third time, with a dramatic, black and white photograph: “Why Nancy Pelosi Went All In Against Trump.” It’s just the latest in a months-long chorus of praise rising for her apparent victory against President Donald Trump. It’s a chorus gulped down by reporters, talking heads, staffers, and activists across the city.
The vote to impeach the president — which won’t result in his removal from office and was achieved on a strictly partisan line plus two no’s, a “present” and an actual defection from her party — was sandwiched between the the speaker’s House passing funding for the president’s wall then his long-touted trade deal. Then Pelosi held the articles for weeks, demanding Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bend to her will. The press lauded her strategy and waited dutifully for the senator to crack, but of course he did not, as was easily predictable to anyone with even a limited understanding of who actually had the leverage and how McConnell has ruled his chamber.
The weeks over which the speaker fought her losing battle weren’t dominated by coverage of McConnell’s terrible meanness, as she might have hoped, but instead lost to Christmas, the New Year, and then the president’s wins against Iran. And what now?
As the impeachment trial arrives in the Senate in time for the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, it isn’t looking like a win for Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who will lose invaluable campaign time on a trial for which everyone already knows the end. One Washington Post columnist thinks this a master stroke by Pelosi, although his contention is based entirely on a questionable belief that Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vice President Joe Biden are the men most fit to defeat the president in a general election.
But Washington’s minority power isn’t simply about the public opinion battles and the next election — a minority can actually win decisive victories. When President Barack Obama handily won his 2012 re-election and gained two seats in the Senate, giving his majority more room to maneuver, Washington held its breath for the swathe of progressive victories sure to follow.
Sequester was doomed and amnesty for illegal immigrants was the talk of both parties; bipartisan hawks were prepared to give their blessing to American intervention in Syria and the terrible murder of children at Sandy Hook had guaranteed the passage of bipartisan gun-control. None of those happened, though, because three conservatives, Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul, won victory after victory “by shifting public opinion and navigating parliamentary procedure.”
Reid, then routinely lauded as a master of the Senate by political reporters trading propaganda for access to power, was powerless to stop these three Republicans despite his electoral gains and the popularity of his president. Student loan bailouts, climate legislation, and any other host of leftist dreams would see no sunshine that decade.
This is what controlling from the minority looks like, but when they saw it the Washington press corps dismissed and derided it. Today, they’ve almost certainly forgotten it, moving on to heap praise on a losing Democratic “fashion icon” despite not a single recent, actualized and concrete victory to her name.
Then, these are the same people who looked at the images of President Trump giving a widely lauded speech to the nation from the seat of power and chose to instead see a display of Pelosi’s awesome leverage over him. That very night, Pelosi pointed her clapping toward Democrats sitting on their hands while the president lauded gains in black and Hispanic employment, signalling for them to stand and not fall for a political trap. What did Washington reporters see? Her invisible power over a president they believe she can rule like a child.
The cult of Pelosi isn’t just a “hot take” or a “be smart,” it’s a mindset through which Washington’s media elites interpret the world. It’s false, and the harsh light of reality easily shows as much. But reality is powerless to stop “the conventional wisdom” of the Beltway.
Overconfidence is a slow-working, terrible thing. It may lead its wearers to see an “invincible” “grand master” when there is none. And more, to see victory ahead when there is only defeat.