Lost in the hail of barbs and recriminations that the talking heads unleash on poor President Trump on a daily basis is the fact that he recently made a brilliant political move of Machiavellian shrewdness. He endorsed Nancy Pelosi’s campaign to be re-elected as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In doing so, he put Pelosi and the Democrats – his avowed political enemies – in a wholly unexpected and deeply uncomfortable position.
How did he do it? After the Democrats won the House majority in the midterm elections, Trump tweeted that Pelosi “deserves this victory, she has earned it.” He told reporters: “I like her, can you believe it? I like Nancy Pelosi. She’s tough and she’s smart…she deserves to be Speaker, and now they’re playing games with her…” Trump has even offered to “help Nancy Pelosi if she needs some votes”, suggesting Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican, as a potential Pelosi supporter.
What are we to make of a Republican President who offers to assist a much-reviled San Francisco liberal to assume the crucial role of Speaker of the House? Pelosi dismissed Trump’s offer immediately, vowing that she would win the speakership with Democratic votes alone, but could Trump’s maneuvers have more lasting significance?
First, we should observe that, in supporting Pelosi, Trump is arguably plucking some very low-hanging political fruit. Pelosi is, despite a halfhearted, leaderless rebellion against her by a handful of House Democrats, extremely likely to be re-elected Speaker. According to PredictIt, an online betting market that implicitly forecasts political developments, Pelosi’s return to the speakership is a 96% certitude. President Trump is therefore betting on a winner, and in politics that is seldom a bad idea. Trump is likely to earn some bragging rights, therefore, and he will be able to greet the newly-enthroned Speaker Pelosi in January with a firm handshake and a sly insinuation that he was behind her all the way.
Second, President Trump must know that, given the unprecedented loathing that liberals feel towards him, his support for Nancy Pelosi cannot but be seen by her as a political liability. From the leftist perspective, Trump’s approval of Pelosi is a bad joke, at best, and the kiss of death, at worst. Liberals also realize that part of Trump’s (and Republicans’) affection for Pelosi grows out of her perceived weakness. She is widely seen by conservatives and Trump-supporters as a tarnished figurehead for loony California-style liberalism. She is, in this sense, the perfect foil for Trump to run against in 2020. That the House she presides over will accomplish little besides raking President Trump and his family members over the coals will, Republicans assume, make it even easier to blacken the name of Democratic candidates in 2020 with the epithet: “He/she is a Pelosi liberal!” If one assumes, therefore, that the likely alternative to Pelosi is a fresh new face with the potential to re-brand the Democratic Party and refocus the work of the House on bipartisan priorities, then it is surely in the political interests of Republicans that Pelosi should retain her stranglehold on the speakership and on the Democratic caucus. She is an albatross, pure and simple.
Third, assuming that Trump is actually playing a double game, and that his support for Pelosi is intended to hobble her and/or to lessen her chances of emerging as Speaker, the possibility emerges that Trump will succeed in precipitating the defeat of his “favorite” by a newcomer. If indeed Pelosi is defeated, it will be because the Democrats succumbed to vicious internecine squabbling. Trump and Republicans would take, one assumes, undisguised pleasure in Pelosi’s downfall and in the Democrats’ discomfiture. They might also assume that whomever was chosen as the new Speaker of the House would be either severely damaged by the bitter battle that would have preceded their selection, or would be gravely compromised by the accommodations they would have made with the far-left elements in the Democratic caucus in order to achieve victory. Either way, Trump and the Republicans would be the beneficiaries.
All in all, therefore, Trump’s decision to voice his support for Nancy Pelosi’s bid for the speakership seems like the rarest of political machinations: a true win-win that carries virtually no risk for the Machinator-in-Chief. To put it another way, whatever happens to Nancy Pelosi, Trump will come out of the Democrats’ bruising political struggle smelling like a rose.
Given the obvious political benefits of President Trump’s unconventional intervention in the Democrats’ House leadership contest, perhaps President Trump should consider reprising the role of “Mr. Nice Guy” in the near future. For instance, some well-timed, incisive praise for the President’s favorite Hollywood blowhards (Alec Baldwin?), for left-leaning corporate bigwigs (Jeff Bezos?), and even for the brashest and most refractory of White House correspondents (Jim Acosta?) could be just the medicine these “enemies of the people” need to rethink their life-philosophy of Trump-hatred. Every compliment could even come with a free MAGA hat…
Could the old-saying be true: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? I advise President Trump to find out. What does he have to lose?
Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com.