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Democrats have an anger management problem

Their base is boiling over, but independents want dignity and competence

Nancy Pelosi has shown she’s a master of her own reactions, Murphy writes, but how will she manage the boiling rage of half of her caucus? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Nancy Pelosi has shown she’s a master of her own reactions, Murphy writes, but how will she manage the boiling rage of half of her caucus? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Nobody does anger better than Nancy Pelosi — and she doesn’t do it often. But when the speaker of the House delivered a velvet-gloved smackdown to Sinclair’s James Rosen last week for asking if she hates the president, her heel turn — “Don’t mess with me” — nearly broke the internet.

Hashtags of #DontMessWithNancy and #DontMessWithMamma consumed social media, while the C-SPAN clip of Pelosi telling Rosen she does not, in fact, hate the president had 2.5 million views before the sun came up the next morning. 

Halfway across the country, at nearly the same time that Pelosi stopped the car to back over Rosen’s question, Joe Biden was about to go viral, scrapping with an 83-year-old Iowa voter who called him too old to be president and then accused the former vice president of getting his son a job with a Ukrainian oil company to sell access to the Obama White House.

“You’re a damn liar, man,” Biden growled Clint Eastwood-style in New Hampton, Iowa, where he also challenged the voter, a former Marine, to a pushup contest and an IQ test. “Get your words straight, Jack,” Biden snapped, in a flash of pique that seemed to win over the town hall crowd, if not the former Marine. The skirmish, along with a viral online ad, also got Biden some much-needed attention after months of ceding the spotlight to everything from Elizabeth Warren jogging across fields in Iowa to Pete Buttigieg’s rising poll numbers. 

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Starts with the base

If Pelosi and Biden were both steaming mad last week, they weren’t the only ones. It turns out that more than two-thirds of all Democrats say they are mad in the age of Trump. An “Axios on HBO” poll from October found that over 70 percent of Democrats said politics is making them increasingly angry about America and leaving them feeling like “strangers in their own land.”

Digging deeper, a broad UCLA/Democracy Fund survey of American voters asked Democrats and Republicans about their top priorities and political choices heading into the election year. For Democrats, the top five priorities were negative or defensive, meaning they were most focused on preventing something from happening, with one exception. Their top issues included “Don’t separate immigrant children;” “No ban on abortion;” “Don’t build a wall;” and “No mass deportation.” The one affirmative priority in the top five? “Impeach Trump.”

That list of priorities is a perfect encapsulation of the incredibly tough balancing act Democrats face: Acknowledge and channel their base’s anger without allowing their agendas to become consumed by the flames.

In the race to replace Trump, the candidates who have had the strongest appeal to the Democratic base so far, namely Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, regularly and loudly reflect voters’ frustrations right back at them. They’re mad at millionaires, billionaires, lobbyists and the System. The more nuanced or soft-spoken in the field (think Beto, Bullock and Harris) are middling or long gone.

Balancing act

But no Democrat will win the White House in November if they can’t prove to Democrats they can stand up to Trump while also convincing independents and even some Republicans they’ll also restore dignity, competence and respect to the Oval Office. Biden showed in Iowa last week he won’t take attacks lying down. Check that off the list. But is challenging an octogenarian to a pushup contest dignified? Not so much. I doubt he’ll do it again.

The far tougher balancing act will be Pelosi’s on Capitol Hill, starting this week and for the duration of the impeachment process as House Democrats present articles of impeachment against the president and move to a likely vote. Pelosi has shown she’s a master of her own reactions, but she’ll also need to manage at least half of her caucus’ boiling rage at Trump. It’s a job made all the more difficult by the fact that some members were calling for Trump’s impeachment on the day they were sworn into office.

There’s nothing to prove to the already convinced. It’s the unconvinced whom Democrats have to speak to every day.

At the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing last week, Jonathan Turley, the Republican minority witness, observed in his opening statement that we are living in a time that Alexander Hamilton once described as “a period of agitated passions.”

“I get it,” Turley said. “You’re mad. The president is mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad.” But, he added, “will a slipshod impeachment make us less mad? Will it only give an invitation for the madness to follow every future administration?”

Anger at Trump most certainly fueled Democrats’ victories in 2018 and put Pelosi and House Democrats on the path where they find themselves today. But only by laying out a case focused squarely on the president’s own conduct, and devoid of all anger and emotion, will Democrats have any hope of making impeachment seem necessary and worth the contortions the country is about to go through.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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