Nancy Pelosi has a knack for infuriating Republicans. That stems in part from being a woman. That stems in part from being from California. That stems in part from being one of the best former Speakers of the House in U.S. history.
But I think it also stems from the fact that the House Minority Leader is extraordinarily tough without ever appearing tough in her couture clothing and strings of pearls. In fact, underneath a velvet glove is an iron fist.
Last weekend was no exception. The topic of the day was President Donald Trump’s threat to shut down the government on April 29 if the Democrats do not support funding a 30-foot-high concrete wall along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border. Trump faces the end of his first 100 days on Friday without having notched a significant legislative victory. He wants his wall. He wants it now. He’s ready to blame the Democrats if everything goes south.
Pelosi demurred Sunday in her elegant way. She said something that men of a certain age— let’s say over 70 —never want to hear from a diminutive woman of refined taste who wields power, as Pelosi does on Capitol Hill. She said, in no uncertain words: Trump is weak.
“The president, I think, talking about this wall, is expressing a sign of weakness,” she told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “He’s saying, ‘I can’t control our borders. I have to build a wall.’”
In fact, she’s right. Controlling the border is one thing. Building a border wall is another. George W. Bush built a partial wall, a fence, that did not by itself reduce illegal immigration. Barack Obama invested billions in border security while deporting more people than any other president. Indeed, under Obama, the border was more secure than it had been in 40 years. These efforts and other factors, including threats from the current president, have resulted in historically low numbers of border crossings.
But Pelosi wasn’t just talking about the wall. She was talking about Donald Trump himself. She was pointing out for all to see this so-called master negotiator who won the election on his reputation for deal-making is not aware that he has no leverage with the Democrats in the battle over the wall and the looming threat of a government shutdown. He bluffs. He preens. He bullies his way toward a $70 billion erection of a wall. But in the end, as Pelosi expertly hinted, this cock has got no walk. In this fight, he’s impotent.
Why no leverage? For one thing, the Republicans control the White House and the Congress. No sane person, knowing that the Republicans hold all the cards, is going to blame a minority party out of power if the federal government shuts down. If the president wants his wall so badly, Pelosi is saying, he can take it up with his party.
That’s the second reason for no leverage. Republicans from border districts know a wall will decimate property and resources. GOP deficit hawks are going to balk at spending billions on a wall that may not work. More moderate Republicans fear that a wall would spark a trade war. They are especially concerned about the impact on farmers whose profit margins depend on crop exports to Mexico.
So the real reason for leaning hard on Democrats is because the only path to achieving something big during his first 100 days leads straight to the Democrats. That’s why Pelosi and her Democrats have the real leverage. The rest is noise.
Trump’s advisers see the problem. They worked around the clock Monday to mute his bluster, saying the president is “flexible” on the issue and would be happy to revisit funding in the autumn. Left unsaid, however, is that by September, every single member of the House will be focused myopically on getting reelected in 2018. That goes double for vulnerable Republicans in deep-blue states.
So in saying he’d wait, he was saying: I got nothing.
This must really gall a man whose identity is about winning. If he has an ideology, writes the Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien, it’s the projection of strength: “He wasn’t opposed to free trade, for example, because he had reservations about the logic of comparative advantage. He was opposed to it, because he thought other countries were bending the rules to take advantage of us. It was about being tough.”
He’s not tough, and nothing proves that more, to paraphrase O’Brien, than having your plans blocked by a elegantly dressed woman from California. This is the way the president’s first 100 days will end. Not with a bang.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a business columnist for Hearst Newspapers, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.