Nancy Pelosi Botches the #MeToo Moment

Her handling of the John Conyers episode shows a politician unwilling to undertake the systematic change that is needed.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

For regular, well-adjusted people, Sunday mornings are for worship, or sleeping in, or for continuing to be awake from the very fun night before. Sunday morning in the political world and the world of politically adjacent media is for tuning in to political talk shows, where folks are issued a preview of the fresh bullshit that will be parsed during the workweek ahead.

At their best, the Sunday shows sail by unnoticed by the general population. The guests are competent enough at Roman showering their talking points to hosts that offer just enough pushback. At their worst, they demonstrate why the aforementioned well-adjusted Americans hate politicians.

Today was one of the bad days.

On Meet the Press, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi laid an absolute stink bomb in an interview with host Chuck Todd.

It actually didn’t start all that badly.

“I think that something wonderful is happening now, very credible,” Pelosi said of the #MeToo moment. “It's 100 years, almost 100 years, since women got the right to vote. Here we are, almost 100 years later, and something very transformative is happening. That is, women are saying, ‘Zero tolerance, no more, and we're going to speak out on it.’ And this is so wholesome, so refreshing, so different.”

Empowerment word salad like that isn’t harmful on its face. But it’s so often coupled with inaction that it’s become, to many women, a cloying symptom of where we went wrong. All the tee shirt slogans in the world didn’t save women from Donald Trump.

Todd pressed Pelosi on whether Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who, after a secretive process, settled sexual harassment complaints from a former female employee who says she was fired for resisting the congressman’s sexual advances. Others have come forward alleging misconduct as well, but Democrats—led by Pelosi—took no action against Conyers.

Pelosi expressed unfamiliarity with the allegations, asking Todd if it was one or two. She called Conyers an “icon.” Todd asked Pelosi if she believed the accusers, and she said she didn’t know who they were because they were anonymous. She called for due process, even though Conyers, as Todd pointed out, had already gone through a process that resulted in him settling with his former employee. It’s not clear what other process Conyers is due. Again, he went through the process. Pelosi told Todd she was sure that Conyers would “do the right thing.”

Sure enough, hours later, Conyers announced that he was stepping down from his position on the House Judiciary Committee. According to a senior Democratic congressional aide, Pelosi had been working behind the scenes for days trying to engineer Conyers’ abdication. Which is all well and good. But if she knew, during the entire interview, that the announcement was imminent, why call him an “icon”? Why not tell Chuck Todd that you were actually doing something about the situation?

It could be that Pelosi was trying to not anger members of her caucus. But that’s hardly a solid excuse and it certainly doesn’t leave her immune from criticism. Writing at Vox, Laura McGann said today’s bad turn on Meet the Press demonstrated that Pelosi is “that woman”—the one who enables and forgives sexual harassment from her buddies, the woman who urges the targets of harassment to calm down, deal with it privately, keep it quiet.

In fact, Pelosi’s backroom dealings with Conyers are part of what’s wrong with the current way Congress deals with sexual harassment. The old way— the way that Pelosi and others claim needs to change—is built on secrecy, deference to the power structure, and enforced anonymity. It’s the sort of shit that women in all workplaces have dealt with for years. That Conyers is being punished in this fashion suggests that far from changing the status quo, politicians, Pelosi included, are content to operate within it when dealing with the institutional sexual harassment problems they now must address. (It is notable that few, if any, Democrats have joined Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) in actually calling for Conyers to resign)

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Twitter prognosticators speculated that Pelosi’s flub would translate to more votes for Roy Moore, as though a large contingent of undecided Alabamians spend their Sunday mornings watching political panel shows, just waiting for Nancy Pelosi to make them angry. As though somehow, the sight of Pelosi’s words collapsing on their own insincerity would drive somebody to vote for an accused child molester out of spite.

No, Pelosi didn’t hand the election to Roy Moore. What she did was contribute another slice to the death by 1,000 paper cuts of Americans’ trust in the political system. The #MeToo moment, at its best, gave politicians the opportunity to step up and do the right thing, to counter the belief that the government is full of people who will debase themselves morally on the altar of party. It gave Congress a chance to actually do some leading on this issue, rather than hoisting the cause of women aloft like baby Simba in The Lion King and then actually work to undermine the cause they’re cashing in on.

Not all of Pelosi’s points fell flat. She’s right that sexual misconduct can’t be painted with too broad a brush; that Roy Moore’s alleged deeds are much worse in degree than Al Franken’s. And she seemed to be hinting at another salient point: there’s no reason that the smallest infraction should garner the same punishment as the most egregious, just as there’s no reason that pocketing a package of paper clips from one’s office should garner the same punishment as embezzling millions of dollars from one’s employer.

But zero tolerance sexual harassment chickenhawking doesn’t help solve the problem, especially when there’s somebody in her own party, right under her nose, whose misdeeds deserved something beyond the quietly and privately arranged punishment they received. Solving the old problems in the same old way they’ve always been solved won’t put a stop to them.

Pelosi is far from the only partisan who has demonstrated uneven morals when it comes to sexual misconduct. She’s not the only one who doesn’t understand what must be done. She’s just the most visible and the latest, and likely won’t be the last.

The cathartic first steps in the #MeToo moment have passed, leaving an uncertain path ahead on Capitol Hill. The next steps probably will involve more awkward rhetorical switchbacks, probably some lost seats, and maybe some tarnished legacies, even for “icons.” Today, however, two things are clear: most politicians haven’t thought the #MeToo moment through, beyond the tasty grandstanding opportunity it’s presented them with. And the old ways, while certainly persistent, simply don’t work.