Friday December 02, 2022

Pelosi’s jet diplomacy

September 29, 2022

Why has US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi embarked upon a series of jetting to hotspots one after another -- Kyiv, Taipei and now Yerevan -- in recent months? The only plausible answer behind the sudden surge in her high-octane diplomatic voyages can be traced to the forthcoming mid-term polls in November.

On the personal front, by remaining in the limelight through this jet-diplomacy, she wants to appear as a stout and active politician so as to lure her voters in the Florida constituency, while she is also indirectly trying to bolster the ebbing approval rating of Democrats. By appearing as a hawkish face of the Democrats, she is working as a helping hand for President Joe Biden to offset the possibilities of an impending rout in the mid-term polls.

Nancy Pelosi is facing two kinds of challenges at this juncture: one, how to save her seat in her home constituency, and two how to retain the speakership in the face of growing discontentment among Democrats. In the midterm elections in November, all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate will be contested. For the first time in the last two decades of her political career, Pelosi is facing this kind of dilemma; she is facing a tough competition in the Florida constituency as well as there is a visible division among Democrats on the question of the continuation of her stint as speaker of the house. Her political career is seriously at stake now.

The recent polls of House Democrats suggest that a consensus is building that if they lose the majority, there would be inordinate pressure on Pelosi to throw in the towel, a prospect Pelosi is keenly aware of. But the problem is that many members say they are also starting to contemplate how, if they maintain control of the House, it will eventually enable Pelosi to extend her time in power. Yet Democrats are visibly split about that possibility, with a palpable contingent eager for new leadership regardless of the outcome, even if she'd be the weighty favourite to retain the speakership.

In 2018, Pelosi, in principle agreed, without any sort of written agreement, with the dissident House Democrats to limit her tenure to four more years as speaker. However, multiple members, in their individual capacity as lukewarm-pro-Pelosi, are of the opinion that if the midterms go well for Democratic party, a combination of dazed ecstasy and deference to both her fundraising skills and the weightage of female voters, could compel them to reconsider extension to her tenure. Whereas a vast majority of them are of the view that, in case of retaining the House majority, it would be perfect timing for Pelosi to call it a day with a very positive note. Interestingly, six years ago, Pelosi expressed her desire to quit if Hillary Clinton won the presidency.

Not surprisingly, at the same time, a kind of fatigue and ennui has enveloped the majority of chronic House Democrats who are eager to see a ‘change of leadership’ at all levels. But the octogenarian leaders of House Democrats seem to be quite oblivious to this ‘simmering revolt’ against the old leadership among the backbenchers particularly, and they are still expressing their ambitions to replace Pelosi. Indeed, a quest for the party overall is running deep inside Democratic Party and its impact is also reflecting on the House Democrats. Even then, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who, like Nancy Pelosi, are north of 80, have privately expressed their inclination to succeed her when she leaves. But they do not have many supporters of this idea inside the House.

The urge for a new leadership is picking up momentum in all layers of the Democratic Party – and perhaps this is what is pushing Pelosi to frantically try to salvage her position at the apparent twilight of her political career. She does not have much to offer to the younger voters. That’s why, though Pelosi herself believes that it is her last run, she hasn't fully shut the door because she doesn't want to look like a lame-duck as she moves across the country to raise staggering sums of money to safeguard her thin majority. Furthermore, after a very productive legislative session that witnessed enactment on major issues on climate change, infrastructure, and gun violence legislation, she is hoping that her high-profile -- and yet very controversial -- visits to Taipei and Yerevan will help win some points in the midterm polls.

There are apparent reasons to believe that all her recent foreign trips had the full backing of President Joe Biden who is also equally worried about the prospects of the Democratic Party in the forthcoming polls. He “allowed” her to visit Taipei despite a last-minute telephone call from Chinese President Xi Jinping to stop the trip with a warning “not to play with fire”. Similarly, in the case of her trip to Yerevan, it seems Biden has deliberately kept his silence over her highly acidic and vitriolic statements against Azerbaijan and Turkey.

By letting a House Speaker express her ‘personal’ biases on highly sensitive flashpoints like the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, President Biden is taking many risks. He is trying to project Pelosi, who also needs the support of Armenian-Americans who can tangibly affect the outcome of the results of her own constituency, as the hawkish face of the Democratic Party. Pelosi’s controversial trip was specifically designed, apart from helping her win her home seat, to test the nerves of Istanbul and to lure Armenia away from Moscow.

Not surprisingly, Pelosi, who is reflexively trying to imitate the bullish rhetoric of Donald Trump, has drawn parallels between Armenia’s situation and that in Ukraine and Taiwan, portraying the conflict as part of a global struggle against tyranny and oppression. Here she is literally playing with fire.

Both Pelosi and Biden are quite confident that this type of belligerent diplomacy will help them salvage the midterm polls, but what they don’t realize is the negative implications and long-term fallouts of such domestic compulsions on the position of the US in the evolving global power equation.

The writer is a freelance contributor.