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Nancy Pelosi may be many things. But ‘crazy’ isn’t one of them

Even those who slam the speaker’s politics recognize her effectiveness

Don’t call Speaker Nancy Pelosi “crazy” lest people assume you’ve lost your mind, Murphy writes.
Don’t call Speaker Nancy Pelosi “crazy” lest people assume you’ve lost your mind, Murphy writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Even as the words escaped Jim Cramer’s mouth, parroting President Donald Trump and asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “What deal can we have, Crazy Nancy?” the CNBC host clearly knew he’d stepped in it.  

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he stumbled. “I have such reverence for the office, I would never use that term.”

“But you just did,” Pelosi pointed out, as she smiled that who-do-you-think-you’re-kidding smile a mom uses when she’s caught one of her kids up to no good. Again.

Cramer apologized one more time and pounded out a tweet later in the day, insisting he’d been taken out of context: “The people criticizing me must not have realized the point! NEVER should she be called that.”

But the damage had been done. And I’m not talking about the damage to Pelosi, because everyone in Washington understands the speaker does not truly care what Jim Cramer or anyone calls her at the end of the day. The damage, really, was to Cramer himself, who suddenly sounded like a New York know-nothing. Because even among people who disagree mightily with Pelosi’s politics, you’ll never, ever hear “crazy” used as a word to describe her and the inch-by-inch work she does behind the scenes to extend her party’s power every day.  

Instead, the words you’ll more often hear are “methodical,” “strategic” and “effective.” And those are the Republicans talking. 

A ‘shrewd’ adversary

Among the Republicans with whom Pelosi has struck up an especially effective relationship is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The speaker and the secretary have negotiated government funding deals, the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement and every one of the COVID-19 relief packages to date — even though Pelosi and the president have not spoken in nearly a year.  

In March, as Trump said he hoped to have the country “raring to go by Easter,” Congress and the administration rushed to respond to the threat of COVID-19 spreading across the country. A Treasury official told CNN then that Mnuchin viewed the speaker “as a shrewd professional with whom he continues to have a constructive and cordial working relationship and a good personal rapport.”

“It helps that each understands and appreciates the effectiveness and purposefulness of the other. In an era of supercharged partisanship, that’s no small thing,” the official continued.

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Well before Trump was ever elected, Doug Heye worked as communications director for the Republican National Committee during Pelosi’s first term as speaker and later as an adviser to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Heye helped engineer the famous “Fire Pelosi” bus tour that hit all 48 states in the fall of 2010, but he said Pelosi was a great political target for Republicans precisely because she was good at her job. Not because she was “crazy.”

“People thought we were criticizing Pelosi for being ineffective. Quite the opposite was true. We knew she was very effective,” Heye said. “We knew that she was a big part of the reason for Obamacare passing. It passed by one vote in the House, and that was thanks to her.” 

Heye called Pelosi a strong fundraiser, a terrific organizer, and, most important, a leader who knows her members.  “When there was talk after 2018, ‘Will Pelosi survive [as speaker]?’ I thought that that was crazy talk.”  

Michael Steel was a senior adviser to John Boehner when the Ohio Republican took over the speakership from Pelosi in 2011. Even after she and the Democrats were handed a massive defeat and she could only react to Republicans’ agenda instead of setting her own, “crazy” wasn’t the word for Nancy Pelosi.

“I’ve always thought that the ‘Crazy Nancy’ moniker was an insult based on ideology, not temperament,” Steel said, striking a much more civil tone than Trump. “‘An out-of-touch San Francisco liberal elitist’ — I think that’s much more credible than the fact that she is not somehow acting methodically and strategically, which she was.”

Differing on policy

Because Heye and Steel were both Republican message men, they are still quick to point out areas of policy where they think Pelosi missed the mark, even strategically, including the last several weeks of refusing to negotiate with Republicans further on another COVID-19 relief package. 

The House passed a progressive-backed $3 trillion HEROES Act in May with tens of billions of dollars for schools, individuals, and state and local governments, among others. But the Senate GOP has failed to come up with anything that could possibly be merged with something of that size.

“We’re in an emergency situation. Members of Congress need to be able to say they’ve done something,” Heye said. 

To Heye’s point, members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus have now come forward with a trimmed-down version of the House passed-package as a possible vehicle to move something, including additional relief checks, before November, which would be an outcome any Democrat could be proud of. Do you see where this is going? 

“The brilliance of Nancy Pelosi is that she’s always looking four steps ahead, five steps ahead,” said Stacy Kerr, who was a close aide to Pelosi for nearly ten years. Kerr said she traveled the country with the speaker to visit individual members’ districts year in and year out. Again and again, she watched Pelosi tell her members to take any steps necessary, even up to opposing her, to get reelected. 

“In the moment, it gets written as ‘Democrats in disarray.’ But she has always known exactly what she was doing,” Kerr said.

Could that scenario play out for, say, a COVID-19 relief package before November? Of course.

In the words of her own daughter, Alexandra Pelosi: “She’ll cut your head off, and you won’t even know you’re bleeding.”

So call her too liberal. Call her an out-of-touch San Francisco elitist. (She’s a grandma from Baltimore, anyway.) But whatever you do, don’t call Nancy Pelosi “crazy.” Because people will assume you’re the one who’s lost your mind.

This is Patricia Murphy’s last column for CQ Roll Call as she joins the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We thank her for her insightful commentary since November 2015 and wish her the best in her new role. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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