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How the government shutdown helped unify House Democrats behind Nancy Pelosi

“She has our back, but we have her back too.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outside the White House.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) leaves a meeting with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Wow, winning is good,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as she strolled to the podium for her Thursday press conference ahead of the State of the Union.

A reporter asked if she meant her hometown basketball team, the Golden State Warriors — who had beaten the Washington Wizards the evening before — or politics. Pelosi simply beamed. “Anywhere,” she said. “It’s always preferable.”

President Donald Trump agreed to reopen the government on January 25, capitulating to Pelosi’s demand of a short-term spending bill that contained none of his desired money for a border wall. It was a moment that was perceived as Pelosi flexing her political muscle, keeping Democrats united as Senate Republicans peeled off to support Democrats’ push to reopen the government.

“The fact is, she’s tough,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), chair of the House Rules Committee. “She has unified our caucus, and there’s power in that unity. She has our back, but we have her back too.”

Pelosi will sit directly behind Trump as he delivers his rescheduled State of the Union address. The very fact that Trump is delivering the State of the Union on February 5 rather than the original date of January 29 is a reminder the House speaker got the upper hand during weeks of political sparring — essentially uninviting the president from delivering his address until the shutdown was resolved.

“I think it was like watching a prize fight, only having one of the two fighters go down in the first five minutes,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA). “Everybody who wound up in favor of her felt profoundly vindicated in watching her completely best the orange-haired guy in the White House, without breaking a sweat.”

And this may not be the last round. House Democrats and Senate Republicans are aligned in their desire to prevent another shutdown, but whether a deal is reached to prevent another on February 15 is ultimately up to the whims of the president, or his own party’s willingness to potentially override his veto.

Pelosi has Democrats unified behind her. It’s less clear if Trump’s side is as strong.

Pelosi and House Democrats came out of the shutdown united. Trump is all over the place.

Pelosi reclaimed the speakership despite a small but notable group of moderate first-term Democrats from red-to-blue districts voting against her for speaker and calling for new, younger leadership.

Once the new session began amid an unprecedented government shutdown, it was up to Pelosi and her leadership team to make sure those moderates had enough information about their strategy at the top to stay calm and on message, despite repeated attempts by Trump’s White House to look like they were peeling moderates off.

“It was just repeating a message, making sure that we were hearing their concerns,” said Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA). “And reminding them that they were sent here by the American people overwhelmingly to get to work on our for the people agenda, and that work doesn’t stop. I think it’s really tough for new members to start in the middle of a shutdown.”

That Pelosi came out of the shutdown politically stronger than she was going into it says a great deal about the speaker’s storied ability to keep her caucus together. Despite a few moderates attending meetings at the White House and sending letters to the caucus, no major cracks appeared in Pelosi’s ranks.

“I do think there was doubt initially, but I think the way she’s conducted herself has shown not just that she’s worthy of that confidence, but also how hard that job is and how much experience matters,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a progressive from Silicon Valley. “I can’t think of a person in that caucus who I would say, ‘You know, if they were face to face with Trump, they would have been strategically smarter.’”

Even though Pelosi came out on top of her border security fight with Trump, she and other high-ranking House Democrats recognize it very well might not be the last fight with Trump — let alone one involving a shutdown. Democrats may be unified, but they want to avoid at all costs a second shutdown and the financial pain it could cause government workers.

But rather than being tagged as too out of touch with her party, Pelosi has emerged as its definitive leader, prepared to fight Trump. It’s a sentiment that stretches beyond Washington, McGovern said.

“I went home over the weekend; at coffee shops and supermarkets, people were telling me, ‘Tell Nancy we love her,’” McGovern said. “I think people across the country appreciate her leadership.”

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