As harrowing images and videos continue to emerge from the United States’ disastrous exit of Afghanistan, the Biden administration is rightly facing major scrutiny and public outcry for what increasingly appears to be a complete lack of preparation or any sort of coordinated plan to leave the country. Following days of chaos and broken promises, President Biden and State Department officials have suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from both sides of the political aisle. But even as the Biden team attempts to weather the media storm, the domestic political fallout from this tragedy may have only just begun. For one Democrat in particular, her full-throated defense of Biden’s Afghanistan policy and hapless response to the crisis are the latest in a series of blunders that may break her already tenuous grip on power: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
While Biden has received his share of criticism for his response (or lack thereof) to the Afghanistan debacle, arguably no other single individual has displayed a more complete and total lack of political awareness than Pelosi. Even as Afghan government officials fled the country and the Taliban tightened its control, she applauded President Biden for his “clarity of purpose.” Americans were left to wonder what that purpose was. The Speaker did not elaborate.
As accounts of torture, rape, and murder at the hands of Taliban forces surfaced on social media and from reporters inside Afghanistan, Pelosi offered another similarly meaningless platitude, saying that she was “deeply concerned about reports regarding the Taliban’s brutal treatment of all Afghans, especially women and girls.” She then said that “the U.S., the international community and the Afghan government must do everything we can to protect women and girls from inhumane treatment by the Taliban.” A good place to start would have been coordinating an orderly withdrawal so that the Afghan people she claimed to have concern for wouldn’t be in that situation in the first place.
The statement was blasted as tone deaf at best and outright delusional at worst. The Afghan government has all but crumbled and President Biden has made it clear that he will not challenge the Taliban. Though Pelosi has survived other messaging blunders, the Afghanistan debacle for the Democrat Party comes at a time when Pelosi is facing leadership challenges from the left, right, and center. The crisis may prove particularly damaging in light of her other recent failures.
Pelosi’s control over the House was once described as an “iron fist in a Gucci glove,” but questions about her continued capability as a leader first started to seriously arise following the 2020 election cycle. Despite unprecedented campaign spending, promotion, and an all-out effort by the media, Democrats lost 15 seats in the House of Representatives, shocking pundits and progressives across the country.
The lackluster results, specifically in the House, led many to question Pelosi’s priorities and leadership over the prior four years. While impeaching President Trump was clearly a key priority of hers ever since 2016, her almost unhinged commitment to doing so whatever the facts raised many questions, even among moderates in her own party.
Then under Pelosi’s leadership, the Democratic Party made “Defund the Police” and “Socialism” two key pillars of its messaging strategy. When that failed, her fellow Congressional Democrats blasted her and distanced themselves heavily from the strategy she promoted.
Pelosi also now appears to potentially have a full-blown mutiny on her hands with regard to President Biden’s legislative priorities. After the Senate passed both the $1.2 trillion “infrastructure” package and Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, Pelosi announced that the House would return next week to vote on the partisan $3.5 trillion plan first before voting on the infrastructure bill, which did receive some Republican votes in the Senate. The move appears to be aimed at pleasing progressives, who have long advocated for such a massive spending plan that would radically change the country.
There is just one problem: a group of nine moderate Democrats have announced that they will not vote for the $3.5 trillion plan until Pelosi brings up the $1.2 trillion plan. With majority-making factions threatening to pull their support no matter which bill Pelosi brings up first, Pelosi’s control of the House – and Biden’s legislative agenda – are effectively being held hostage by moderates on the one hand and progressives on the other. That type of leadership failure has earned the ire not just of Congressional Democrats, but also the American public, as Pelosi also faces dismal approval ratings, with only 38% of the country supporting her.
The vulnerable members in her caucus are also said to be increasingly panicked about the multitude of crises facing the country under Democrat leadership—not only Afghanistan, but the southern border crisis, surging crime rates, runaway inflation, and the Biden administration’s failure on the pandemic. Just this week, American Action Network, a leading conservative group, announced a $5 million campaign opposing the reconciliation bill designed to put pressure on Pelosi’s moderate House Democrats.
All of this raises the question of whether, in the event of a Democrat collapse in the polls, Pelosi can maintain her leadership position even to the end of the year, nonetheless until the next election. If many of Pelosi’s members return home over the August recess and find their districts infuriated by the avalanche of Democrat disasters, she could have a revolt on her hands in a matter of weeks.
To be sure, removing a sitting speaker is extremely difficult. The last successful attempt was the removal of former Speaker John Boehner in 2015 after only 6 years in office. The coups that threw him out of the speakership came as a result of his evident disdain for the more conservative elements of his caucus, specifically the Tea Party. The failure of Republican leadership to stop the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, as well as the failure to curb illegal immigration, was a double blow that Boehner was unable to absorb. Toward the end of his tenure, Boehner was pilloried as a member of the “establishment” who was out of touch with his own party. The rejection of incumbents like Boehner in favor of novel outsiders directly foreshowed the eventual rise of Donald Trump not a year later.
As the 2022 election draws near, Democrats are already bracing for a loss. The question is already being asked if Pelosi’s presence is a net positive or negative. Losing a speaker would invite questions of competency within Democratic circles. However, increasingly desperate and vulnerable members in Pelosi’s caucus might calculate that fresh leadership could save their party from a catastrophic defeat.
Pelosi was weak even before she appeared clueless on Afghanistan. She is only more endangered now. Should the spending bills fall through, Democrats might have a crisis of confidence in their current leadership. Should they pass, some might say it’s a sufficient note on which the Speaker can retire. Either way, that Gucci glove may be losing its grip on the gavel.
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