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Krugman: Nancy Pelosi is a better leader than you realize

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Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 11:01 PM
Paul Krugman

Normally, a party that gives away $2 trillion without worrying about where the money will come from can buy itself at least a few votes. But Donald Trump’s tax cut remains remarkably unpopular, and Republicans barely mention it on the campaign trail – in fact, Democrats are running against the tax cut more than Republicans are running on it.

Nor are Republicans talking much about Trump’s trade war, which also remains unpopular.

What, then, does the GOP have to run on? It can hype the supposed menace from unauthorized immigrants – but that hasn’t been gaining much traction, either. Instead, Republicans’ attack ads have increasingly focused on one of their usual boogeymen – or, rather, a boogeywoman: Nancy Pelosi, the former and possibly future speaker of the House.

So this seems like a good time to remind everyone that Pelosi is by far the greatest speaker of modern times and surely ranks among the most impressive people ever to hold that position. And it’s interesting to ask why she gets so little credit with the news media, and hence with the general public, for her accomplishments.

What has Pelosi achieved?

First, as House minority leader, she played a crucial role in turning back George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security.

Then she was the key figure, arguably even more crucial than President Barack Obama, in passing the Affordable Care Act, which produced a spectacular fall in the number of uninsured Americans and has proved surprisingly robust even in the face of Trumpian sabotage. She helped enact financial reform, which has turned out to be more vulnerable to being undermined, but still helped stabilize the economy and protected many Americans from fraud.

Pelosi also helped pass the Obama stimulus plan, which economists overwhelmingly agree mitigated job losses from the financial crisis, as well as playing a role in laying the foundation for a green energy revolution.

It’s quite a record. Oh, and whenever you hear Republicans claim that Pelosi is some kind of wild-eyed leftist, ask yourself, what’s so radical about protecting retirement income, expanding health care and reining in runaway bankers?

It’s probably also worth noting that Pelosi has been untouched by allegations of personal scandal, which is amazing given the right’s ability to manufacture such allegations out of thin air.

So how does Pelosi stack up against the four Republicans who have held the speaker’s position since the GOP took control of the House in 1994?

Newt Gingrich was a blowhard who shut down the government in a failed attempt to blackmail Bill Clinton into cutting Medicare, then led the impeachment of Clinton over an affair even as he himself was cheating on his wife.

Dennis Hastert, we now know, had a history of molesting teenage boys. Personal behavior aside, the “Hastert rule,” under which Republicans could support only legislation approved by a majority of their own party, empowered extremists and made America less governable.

John Boehner didn’t do much except oppose everything Obama proposed, including measures that were crucial to dealing with the aftermath of the financial crisis.

And Paul Ryan, the current but departing speaker, is a flimflam man: a fake deficit hawk whose one legislative achievement is a budget-busting tax cut, a fake policy wonk whose budget proposals were always obvious smoke and mirrors, pretending to address the budget deficit but actually just redistributing income from the poor to the rich. In the final act of his political career he has also shown himself to be a coward, utterly unwilling to stand up to Trump’s malfeasance.

Looking at modern House speakers, then, Pelosi stands out as a giant among midgets. But you’d never know that from her media coverage.

While in office, Hastert was generally portrayed as a stolid embodiment of middle-American values. Ryan was for years the recipient of fawning media coverage, which lauded him as the ultimate serious, honest conservative long after his phoniness was obvious to anyone who paid attention. But Pelosi is typically referred to as “divisive.” Why?

I mean, it’s true that she’s a political partisan – but no more so than any of the Republicans who preceded and followed her. Her policy stances are far less at odds with public opinion than, say, Ryan’s attempts to privatize Medicare and slash its funding. So what makes her “divisive”? The fact that Republicans keep attacking her? That would happen to any Democrat.

Or maybe it’s just the fact that she’s a woman – a woman who happens to have been far better at her job than any man in recent memory.

Does all this mean that Pelosi should become speaker again if Democrats retake the House? Not necessarily: You can make an argument for a new face despite her extraordinary record.

But her achievements really have been remarkable. It’s a sad commentary on Republicans that they have nothing to run on except demonizing a politician whose track record makes them look pathetic. And it’s a sad commentary on the news media that so much reporting echoes these baseless attacks.

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service

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