Destroying Pelosi’s reputation: A case study

DESTROYING PELOSI’S REPUTATION: A CASE STUDY…. The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked respondents whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of various political figures and parties. President Obama continues to have the highest positive ratings, and Democrats continue to enjoy more popularity than Republicans.

But it’s the ratings for congressional leaders that stand out. The leader with the very lowest positive ratings is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — only 11% have a favorable view — but that’s only because most Americans have no idea who he is. Among the recognized figures, it’s outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who fares the worst — 24% have a favorable opinion of her, but literally twice as many, 48%, hold her in low regard.

This is in keeping with what Nate Silver’s analysis found yesterday. In terms of favorability ratings, the American political figures with the highest positives are Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Al Gore, in that order. The figure with the highest negative is Pelosi.

After going through the available data, Silver concluded the current House Speaker is “among the least popular politicians in America today — perhaps the single least popular one that maintains an active political role.”

A party leader’s principal goal isn’t necessarily to be popular, and Ms. Pelosi was exceptionally successful at advancing legislation through the House in 2009 and 2010, whipping votes to pass a stimulus package, an energy bill, and a health care bill (twice!), among many other pieces of the Democratic agenda.

Still, the role of the party leader changes when a party goes from being in the majority to the minority. And it noteworthy that, of the several reasons that Jonathan Allen and John F. Harris at Politico cite for why Ms. Pelosi is likely to retain her top position in spite of her poor public image, almost none have to do with any tactical or strategic advantage the Democrats might gain from selecting her; instead, they have to do with institutional politics.

I don’t mention this to bash Pelosi. On the contrary, I’ve long considered myself a great admirer of the Speaker.

Rather, I mention this as something of a case study. When Republicans decided they’d try to destroy Pelosi’s reputation in 2008, I scoffed. The vast majority of voters didn’t necessarily know who Pelosi was or what she stood for, so the crusade to tear down her name seemed like a waste of time. If people don’t know who Pelosi is, why invest resources in attacking her?

But Republicans have a knack for not accepting political circumstances as they are, but rather, using blunt force to create new political circumstances more to their liking. The GOP and its allies stuck with their anti-Pelosi campaign, directing as much fire at her as anyone, including President Obama. They set out to destroy her reputation, using “Pelosi” as a synonym for “radical liberalism,” and in time their efforts paid off. Today, the House Speaker is poised to depart her post very unpopular, not because of any scandals, misjudgments, or mistakes, but because of a coordinated effort to convince the country Pelosi offends their values.

It’s almost impressive as a p.r. strategy — and by “impressive,” I mean that in the same sense that it’s also impressive that tobacco companies manage to convince teenagers to smoke.

This can also serve as a reminder to Democrats. There was about a month in which Dems decided they’d try to make John Boehner something of a villain. It didn’t really go far, and most Americans still don’t know who he is. The point, though, is that it takes time and determination to sully a leader’s reputation in Americans’ eyes. Republicans were patient when it came to turning Pelosi into a monster; are Dems prepared to take their time with the new Speaker?