House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered a forced smile recently when asked on MSNBC about a Tom Steyer-sponsored ad that calls for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
“That’s a great ad,” Pelosi said twice, before rushing to plug the Democrats’ Better Deal economic agenda as the TV hit wrapped up.
Pelosi played it off, but privately she was peeved. She told lawmakers at a Democratic leadership meeting soon after that she had reached out to the Democratic megadonor to tell him that his $10 million ad campaign is a distraction. (A source close to Steyer said he hasn’t spoken with Pelosi since the ad launched.)
Pelosi is eager to show her party can govern — in contrast to the chaos surrounding Trump — and she believes that a reputation as the “no drama” Democrats is key to taking back the House in 2018 and whisking her backing into the speaker’s chair.
While not an official slogan, Pelosi has discussed the strategy broadly in recent leadership and caucus meetings, urging members to avoid talk of impeachment and resist taking Trump’s bait on whatever topic is dominating his Twitter feed that day.
“There’s nothing any of us can say in Congress that is going to change people’s view of Donald Trump,” said freshman Rep. Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley progressive who agrees with Pelosi’s strategy. “What they need is us to help them form their view of whether the Democratic Party is ready to lead.”
Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland both issued cautious statements Monday after former Trump campaign aides were indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. The House Democratic leaders reiterated their calls for an independent commission while carefully avoiding any speculation about Trump’s potential collusion with Moscow in the 2016 campaign.
Privately, Pelosi has suggested that the Russia probe could lead to the unraveling of Trump’s presidency, going so far as to say “the proof is in the Putin” at a Democratic leadership meeting earlier this year.
But in public, the California Democrat is encouraging her rank and file to take a measured approach to all things Trump, banking on the strategy that, by next November, the president and congressional Republicans will bomb with voters on their own.
Pelosi has warned lawmakers about wading too deeply into Trump-created distractions, most recently at a leadership meeting last week, where she cited the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and the president’s attacks on Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) over his phone call to a soldier’s widow.
Instead, she has urged Democrats to stay focused on policy battles, telling members at their caucus meeting last week they “will be in the majority” if Republicans head into the midterms without a single major legislative accomplishment.
That doesn’t mean House Democrats will ignore Trump or his tweets. But Democratic leaders think responding to every culture war salvo from the president will only muddy their message heading into the midterms.
Pelosi has encouraged lawmakers to talk up what a Democratic majority can deliver for voters, plugging their economic message on repeat in hopes that it eventually will break through with voters.
“In my opinion it cannot happen fast enough,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, a moderate Democrat whose northwestern Illinois district was carried by Trump last year. “If we get asked about Frederica Wilson or the NFL or Russia, we can answer that. But then let’s get back to what’s on people’s minds.”
The party’s Trump-focused message fell flat last year, as Democrats picked up only six seats in the House after boasting about the potential for double-digit gains and lost big in working-class districts that dot the Rust Belt.
This time around, Democratic leaders purposefully avoided including divisive social issues in their agenda rollout this summer. Their “no drama” approach to Trump’s controversies is an extension of that strategy.
Keeping Democrats united won’t be easy for Pelosi. The caucus ranges from progressive rabble-rousers like Khanna — who ousted a Democratic incumbent last year and called for a primary challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California — to a dozen Democrats sitting in Trump-won districts like Bustos.
“It is difficult because [Trump’s] actions are so outrageous,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “And it’s ongoing work, by all of us, not just leadership” to stay focused.
The approach risks angering progressive groups and liberal donors, some of whom have declared all-out war on Trump and have threatened to primary Democratic lawmakers who don’t do enough to take on the president.
But some lawmakers say their hands are tied — that the best way to defeat Trump’s agenda is by regaining the majority, and the best way to be back in the majority is to avoid focusing too much on Trump.
In terms of the Indivisible Movement to resist Trump’s agenda, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said, “There’s a role and a place for that. But the vast majority of people are scared to death about their own futures,”
“When you haven’t been in the majority since 2010, you want to make sure that given the opportunity we have in front of us to take back the House, that you remain focused,” Larson added. “And that’s the only way any progressive agenda is going to have the opportunity to see the light of day.”
Indivisible, the grass-roots progressive group formed after Trump’s election, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, even as the Russia probe heats up, Democratic leaders have been working behind the scenes to quell any chatter about impeachment. For them, the topic is a distraction from defeating Republicans’ tax push in the short term and could turn off independent voters down the road.
Democratic leaders pressured Rep. Al Green to relent on forcing a vote on impeaching Trump after the Texas Democrat reignited the issue on the House floor recently. Hoyer was seen having a long, intense chat with Green just off the House floor during the debate.
And then there’s Steyer’s ad, and many House Democrats agree with Pelosi on that.
“I certainly don’t think that that’s a helpful effort,” Khanna said of the ad.
Steyer said in a statement, “This isn’t about me, or Rep. Pelosi. This is about giving a voice to the American people who are demanding the political establishment stand up to Trump.”
There is at least one pol who is happy to comment on Steyer’s impeachment push.
“Wacky & totally unhinged Tom Steyer, who has been fighting me and my Make America Great Again agenda from beginning, never wins elections!” Trump tweeted.
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