I well remember the summer of 1984, when Ronald Reagan’s GOP coined the term San Francisco Democrats, crafting it as a synonym for gay-friendly, communist-coddling, tax-hiking liberal decadence. Caricature can be an effective political tool, and this one worked brilliantly.
Two decades later, we’re now seeing it again. With critical congressional elections just seven weeks away, George W. Bush’s GOP is trying to shift voters’ attention away from the unpopular George W. Bush by warning in essence, “If you think that Bush and his allies are bad, just imagine the horrific threat to the nation if Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco gets the keys to the House.”
It’s impossible to predict whether this demonization strategy will work, but she potentially provides the GOP with ample raw material: She represents a liberal and affluent San Francisco district, she votes for gun control and abortion rights, she was an early supporter of Iraq troop withdrawal, and some allies even fret that she comes off as too sophisticated for the average voter (remember the pictures of John Kerry wind-surfing?).
The other day, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman told Roll Call, a subscriber-only Capitol Hill paper, that it would be “a dereliction of our duty” if party headquarters fails to run TV ads that tie Democratic candidates to the House votes cast by Pelosi. This way, Republicans hope to thwart the Democrats’ ambitious efforts to run competitive candidates in non-liberal districts.
Hence the gist of Operation Pelosi: Any Republican incumbent locked in a tough race against a moderate or macho Democratic challenger, can simply try to tie that challenger to prospective House Speaker Pelosi, and hence transform that challenger into a San Francisco Democrat by association.
One can argue that targeting Pelosi is a fool’s errand, since her name won’t appear this fall on 434 of the 435 House ballots. And she’s not a household name, either; according to a June Gallup poll, 27 percent of Americans don’t even know who she is, 31 percent know her and like her, and 29 percent know her and dislike her. But this GOP tactic isn’t really aimed at most Americans; rather, it’s intended only for red states and competitive blue states, as a way to stoke anti-Democratic hostility among conservative base voters who, given their own frustrations with Bush and the GOP, might need an extra reason to rise from their sofas and trudge to the polls on Nov. 8.
This explains the email circulated yesterday by Pennsylvania GOP director Scott Migli. In his state, three Republican incumbents are facing competitive challenges from a trio of Democrats who served either in Iraq or in the military as careerists. But, having gotten word that those Democrats were heading to Washington for a party fundraiser, Migli pounced with the message that those vets “are the hand-picked political pawns of Nancy Pelosi,” or, as the email says elsewhere, “far-left liberal Nancy Pelosi,” and her “liberal tax-and-spend, soft-on-security” friends.
And this explains the radio ad that has been running in the mountains of North Carolina, where a Republican incumbent faces a tough challenge from a Democrat who defies the liberal stereotype; in fact, Democrat Heath Shuler is pro-gun, anti-abortion…and, just top it off, he’s an ex-NFL quarterback. Hence the radio ad: “Rookie Heath Shuler is following the playbook of San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi. The Pelosi game plan – Elect Heath Shuler and others like him, and take over Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants.” That same tactic is in play in South Carolina, where a Republican challenger has been trying to hang Pelosi around the neck of moderate Democratic congressman John Spratt.
Meanwhile, the national party has gone to work on Pelosi, contending that one of her most recent comments is a slur on our fighting men and women (San Francisco Democrat = security wimp). On Tuesday, Pelosi said, with reference to Osama bin Laden, “even to capture him now, I don’t think makes us any safer.” GOP headquarters circulated the remark, and top House Republicans sounded shocked that Pelosi would say such a thing. Duncan Hunter of California said that Pelosi’s remark “can only have a demoralizing effect on American troops and intelligence personnel who are currently risking their lives…” Phil Gingrey of Georgia said, “And the Democrats wonder why Americans think they’re soft on security.”
Maybe Pelosi’s remark will rouse conservative voters in the intended fashion; the problem is, she has plenty of company when she says bin Laden’s capture would not be a panacea. Republican company, in fact. Dick Cheney said four days ago on Meet the Press: “He’s not the only source of the problem, obviously…If you killed him tomorrow, you’d still have a problem with al Qaeda, with (bin Laden deputy Ayman) al-Zawahiri and the others.” The bipartisan 9/11 Commission essentially made the same argument; so did Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, when he said back in 2001 that if bin Laden was gone, “the same problem would exist.”
It is true that many Democrats privately cringe whenever Pelosi goes on TV; she recites rote talking points, and her bug-eyed stare provides the GOP with endless opportunities to depict her in photos as a fiend from Night of the Living Dead. Nor does it necessarily help that she has reportedly been weighing the idea, should the Democrats take the House, of installing Florida congressman Alcee Hastings as chair of the Intelligence Committee – the same guy who, as noted today in a GOP headquarters email, was once impeached and ousted from a federal judgeship on eight counts of bribery and conspiracy.
But will demonizing Pelosi let Bush and the GOP incumbents off the hook? There’s scant evidence that targeting a House personage can work nationwide. That’s what the Democrats tried to do with Newt Gingrich in 1996. He was actually running the House at the time, and Democrats figured they could pull their voters to the polls en masse by highlighting the various Newt-driven federal program cuts. Wrong.
On the other hand, as evidenced yesterday in Rhode Island, it would be also be wrong to underestimate the vaunted efficiency of Republican turnout operations.
But maybe Bush has way bigger political problems than Nancy Pelosi.
Consider: If Pelosi had crafted a bill that protected terrorist suspects from being tortured in ways that breached the Geneva Conventions, and if, by doing so, she had brazenly defied the Bush administration (which says it should have the right to use such interrogation methods), then it's fair to say that the GOP political team would be spinning her behavior as further evidence of San Francisco Democratic decadence and security wimpsmanship.
But the problem for the Bush team is, the current practitioners of security wimpsmanship are Republican senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and John Warner. They have crafted precisely that kind of bill. Graham is a former military lawyer, McCain knows a few things about being tortured, and Warner is one of the Senate "old bulls," a barometer of GOP establishment thinking. They seem to have a few major objections with the Bush team's contention that Congress should sign off on a flexible-torture plan that essentially would contradict the prohibition handed down this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Their defiance would appear to make them worthy of being labeled soft on terrorism, soft on the troops, in accordance with the Pelosi paradigm. That won't happen, of course, but their timing is not helpful to an administration that would much prefer not to have its internal rifts laid bare during election season.
And now, to foil matters further, retired Gen. Colin Powell has weighed in on the side of the defiant trio, with a letter that says in part: "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine (the Geneva Conventions) would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."
With even the normally reticent Colin Powell out there in opposition, can the Bush team get voters to care about Nancy Pelosi?