On Nancy Pelosi and Kirsten Gillibrand, We're Asking the Wrong Questions

We shouldn't ask whether they'll succeed. We should ask why they're succeeding.

You know that movie Dumb and Dumber? Comedian Jim Carrey asks if the odds of doing whatever it is he’s about to do are in his favor. He’s told no, they’re not. He asks: You mean, like, one in a hundred? He’s told, no, more like one in a million. He says:

I’m not saying reporters covering Nancy Pelosi are dumb. I am saying they fell for a fallacy. There was always a chance, a slim chance, the California congresswoman would not get enough votes from her caucus to become the next House Speaker. But, as I’ve said, brass-tacks fundamentals suggested otherwise. The story should not have been, “Will she win?” It should have been, “Why are the odds in her favor?”

I think that’s the more interesting question, and reporters would be serving the republic better in answering it. But even Pelosi’s landslide victory yesterday in a closed-door vote did not dampen the yen for casting doubt on her powers.

The Times ran this headline: “Democrats Resoundingly Nominate Pelosi as Speaker, but Defections Signal Fight Ahead.” The Post ran this subhed: “The real test comes when full House votes for speaker in January.” NPR ran this: “If Pelosi Returns As Speaker, So Would The GOP Playbook Against Her.” It’s hard to imagine outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan getting such treatment. In fact, we know he didn’t. Look here.

Linda Sanchez isn’t helping. Also from California, the Democratic congresswoman is encouraging the Washington press corps to continue doubting Pelosi. She told the Post: “The battle is on the floor,” by which she meant that the vote for speaker will go to the House floor in January. That, she said, is more important than the caucus vote. More than 30 voted no yesterday. Pelosi needs 218 of 233 Democrats to win. Again, there’s a chance, a very slim chance, that Pelosi won’t get the necessary votes.

But Sanchez is wrong. The battle was Wednesday in a secret session. If 32 Democrats voted no in secret, fewer are likely to vote no in public. Anyway, there’s still no Pelosi challenger, and the Democrats aren’t going to give leverage to House Republicans. (That’s what would happen if Pelosi is stymied. She’d have to ask Republicans for help, giving them a say in who will lead the Democrats. That’s pretty much unthinkable.)

I’ll leave the sexism angle to others. (I recommend this take from Christina Cauterucci. The Slate writer unpacks the double-standard of “opportunist” when the word is applied to women in power.) My concern is that sexism blinds us to what’s going on politically. And we, the people striving toward the ideal of self-government, may not have the information we need. Sexism is like a curtain. We can pull it back to look out the window if we choose. Given Donald Trump’s creeping fascism, I think we should.

Consider that this president has never been popular. The most important reason, I think, is that most women detest him. As I have said before, he’s a lying, thieving, philandering sadist. According to the Post, he finds ways of appealing to men insecure about their manhood. At the same time, women powered the midterm backlash against him, fueling what turned out to be historic smack-down of the ruling party.

The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman wrote that Democrats “just surpassed 60 million House votes. For perspective, the previous midterm record was 44.5 million set by Republicans in 2010. Republicans also smashed their previous midterm record—they're at 50.6 million votes & counting—but still lost 40 seats. Just massive turnout.”

Contributing to that turnout, I contend, was Pelosi, but also Kirsten Gillibrand. Don’t forget her. She was the first Democrat to call for Al Franken’s resignation after seven women accused the former senator of sexual harassment and abuse. Gillibrand wasn’t alone. Other senators joined her. But she was the face of a public effort within the party to purge it of sexual impropriety, a taint it has lived with since the Clinton era.

In purging Franken, Gillibrand, who has a record of combating gender inequities, asked women voters to decide: do you want a party that protects a lying, thieving, philandering sadist, or do you want a party that’s willing to speak for women?

This was especially important during the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A recurring theme running through the hearings was whether white men of privilege and status can be held accountable for crimes they commit against women.

Freed from the taint of sexual impropriety, the Democrats were all offense all the time. That likely played a part in the new justice’s historically low approval rating. The Democrats never lost the high ground in that fight. The backlash against Kavanaugh drove even more women to the polls. We have Kirsten Gillibrand to thank for both.

Gillibrand is said to be interested in running for president. As it does with Pelosi, the press corps likes doubting whether she can do it. Politico reported Monday that her presidential ambitions are “haunted” by the Franken scandal. (Evidently, big wheel donors in the Democratic Party, mostly men, don’t like how Franken was treated. As Cauterucci writes, protecting him would have been actual opportunism: the sacrificing of ideals for the sake of the party. Or in this case, for the sake of a popular senator.)

The question will likely be, going forward, whether Gillibrand has what it takes to seize power. (Same “narrative” for Pelosi.) But the real question, the more interesting question, the question whose answer would be more beneficial to realizing the ideal of self-government, would be this: Why are the odds in her favor? I’m not saying Gillibrand will win the party’s presidential nomination. I don’t have any feeling one way or another. I am saying we should pull back the curtain of sexism.

We shouldn't ask whether these women will succeed.

We should ask why they're succeeding.

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