Nancy Pelosi isn’t playing.
With her polite but devastating letter telling Donald Trump he’s no longer welcome to deliver his State of the Union later this month, she deprived the toddler in chief of what he craves most: a bright media spotlight and worshipful Republican applause. Pelosi cited security concerns in canceling the event, given the interminable government shutdown, but she’d be right to do it on the grounds of optics alone. She had the sense to cancel a grand concert celebrating her return to the speakership earlier this month, knowing it was wrong at a time when 800,000 workers are going unpaid, millions of contractors are getting stiffed, and suffering is rippling ever outward through the economy.
Likewise, the spectacle of our annual celebration of bipartisanship and the continuity of democratic government would have to be grating to all of those suffering from the shutdown—including to people waiting in hours-long TSA lines. Anyway, who needs a formal address? The state of our union is broken. And Trump and his GOP enablers broke it.
Whiny GOP leaders accuse Pelosi of “playing politics,” and “bothsiderist” pundits will likely take potshots, but Pelosi is wielding her power carefully and strategically. Let Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell cravenly bow before Trump and surrender his power to bring a shutdown-ending bill to the floor; Pelosi understands the role she plays as a check on an out-of-control presidency, and this is only the first of many times we will see her play it.
There’s a deeper layer to Pelosi’s thinking here, and one that predates Trump. The House Speaker has long been concerned that the tendency of Democrats to try to be the adults in Congress, facing an increasingly irrational GOP that’s in thrall to wingnut media stars and a racially aggrieved base, has in fact hastened the other party’s march to the right. During the 2013 shutdown, she told me in an interview that she believed the Democrats had been “enablers” of GOP cruelty in Obama’s first term.
In the summer of 2011, they let Republicans use raising the debt ceiling, which had traditionally been a bipartisan formality, to cut government spending—a pleased McConnell famously said his new Tea Party caucus showed him that the debt ceiling was “a hostage worth taking.” A raft of bad outcomes cascaded from the 2011 debt-ceiling deal (remember “sequestration”?), including a “fiscal-cliff” deal at the end of 2012 that avoided sharp spending cuts but kept the Bush tax cuts in place for families with income as high as $400,000 (the top rate was supposed to be restored to $250,000). Pelosi mostly opposed the deal, but nonetheless whipped Democratic votes for it, while then–GOP Speaker John Boehner lost two-thirds of his caucus. Never again, she apparently vowed.
That’s why a year later she refused to lift the debt ceiling while keeping the government shutdown—and she happened to be the only leader who saw her approval rating rise during that shutdown: Boehner’s fell 14 points; hers rose by five. “We’ve become enablers. We can’t be that anymore,” Pelosi told me then. She’s making good on that promise now.
Some talking heads are lamenting that “politics” is involved in Pelosi’s decision not to negotiate with Trump until he agrees to reopen the government. If politics means representing the interests of the people who elected her, she has no choice but to consider politics. The Democrats gained 40 seats in the House after an election season in which Trump and much of the GOP tried to push the notion of a border “crisis”—and they got their asses handed to them. Trump’s “wall” polls in the single digits among Democrats—and its popularity is declining among Americans generally. It would be deeply stupid and out of touch for Pelosi to give Trump funding for his wall while he’s holding the government hostage.
It’s clear she’s also using the crisis to teach Trump an early lesson about her political steel. “She’s just a badass,” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal told Politico. “There is some truth when she says, ‘I’m a grandmother, I know a temper tantrum when I see it.’”
Not to imply women without children can’t be equally tough, but there is something satisfying about watching this woman who raised five children before even starting her political career schooling someone who acts like he wasn’t adequately potty-trained. Most satisfying, the supremely sexist president is finding his toughest adversary is a woman. The man who said this week that the “first lady” and “second lady”—Melania Trump and Karen Pence—could have made salads for the visiting Clemson Tigers is learning that a woman’s place is not just in the home but also leading the House. Pelosi will put him in his place, and he’ll be lucky if it’s the kitchen.