Nancy Pelosi knows she needs to protect the Democratic majority

Nancy Pelosi knows she needs to protect the Democratic majority
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No one knows where the politics of impeachment will take Democrats or Republicans. It is sheer guesswork in an electorate whose most consistent trend in the last decade has been its volatility. But there is an important precedent for Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Overnight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE and her choices in the weeks ahead. It occurred in 2009 and 2010, when she prioritized what she thought was a national interest over the difficult to predict political consequences.

I am talking about the Affordable Care Act. In his first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2009, President Obama announced that he would work with the legislative to pass health care reform. At the time, Democrats held the majority in both the House and Senate. The bill was not formally introduced until September. House Republicans organized against the bill, as they have against impeachment. Pelosi knew she would have to reach the majority of 218 votes exclusively with Democrats. She began operating methodically, always based on the principle that the policy itself was too important to be derailed by political predictions.

She built concentric circles of advocates, starting with senior Democratic leadership, then radiating to the committee chairs and the subcommittee chairs. Then she worked a form of shuttle diplomacy with the large ring of caucuses, including the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Asian and Pacific Islanders Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, moderate New Democrats, and conservative leaning Blue Dogs. Then she navigated an external ring of advocates, including labor unions, health care industry groups, and hospital associations. Pelosi convened briefings with policy experts in her office and invited members to listen to their concerns, showering them with attention. She constantly perused a whip list that nudged slowly, sometimes painfully slowly, to 218 votes.


Still short on hard commitments and long on undecideds, she went local. She summoned those undecideds into her office, sometimes in groups, sometimes individually. Anyone who has been there knows it is not so much twisting of arms than a session of therapy. What worried you? What were your fears? How could she help you get through it? She used weekly meetings with the Democratic leadership to rally the troops, creating what Majority Leader Steny Hoyer called a “psychology of consensus,” as she showed the dwindling recalcitrant how lonely they were becoming. But as she plowed forward, the ground hardened against ObamaCare, especially among those members in swing districts where the bill was so unpopular.

That is when she increased pressure, which was widely misunderstood. Her belief that national interest outweighed political consequences was not absolute. She was not deaf to the claims by some members that a vote for ObamaCare was a political death blow. She understood then, as she understands now, that the majority requires winning elections. What Pelosi could not abide were those who could vote for ObamaCare and, with some hard work and a few political bruises, get reelected anyway. Maybe it would not be as easy as before. But it was certainly necessary.

She would sometimes gripe of members who wanted an easy pass, “What are they here for if not to provide better health care to their constituents?” Yet over the summer of 2009, the politics continued to deteriorate. Some in the Obama administration thought it was better to retreat. Many of my colleagues argued that a vote would cost us seats. Pelosi acknowledged that House Democrats had reached a high water majority in 2008 and were likely to lose seats in 2010 with or without a vote on ObamaCare. That was the whole point. Democrats had the majority. They had to do something consequential with it instead of fearing the consequences.

In the end, it was her belief in the national interest and her willingness to set aside the political interest that led to the passing of ObamaCare. In early 2010, the House passed a Senate bill with 219 votes. Eight months later, the Democrats lost the majority. But ObamaCare did not cause the defeat. The loss was more about the perfect storm of energy from the rise of the Tea Party, the typical gains of a minority party in a midterm election, and the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, which unleashed a torrent of corporate spending against unprepared House Democrats.

But this is a different time. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE has frozen the poles of the electorate, voter intensity has reached equilibrium, and gerrymandering decisions have limited the number of competitive districts since 2010. However, the stakes with impeachment today are even higher than they were when Pelosi was leading her caucus to pass ObamaCare. The first thing a member of Congress does, even before they cast a vote, is take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. You can be sure that Pelosi will remind them of that when they are called to her office and express their concern about retaining their seats, all while remaining cognizant of the vital need to protect her Democratic majority in the House next year.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump, Biden intensify battleground focus as 2020 race tightens Biden allies express confidence as convention begins MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.