The Great Disappearing Act of Nancy Pelosi

by Stuart Rothenberg March 9, 2011 · 10:00 AM EST

It didn’t take the communications team of the National Republican Congressional Committee very long to distribute a Roll Call article titled “Pelosi Finds Her Footing as Democrats’ Attack Dog.”

NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay said in the e-mail that his committee was “pleased” to see the story and that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “will continue to be a symbol for everything that is wrong with Washington and the Democrats who control it.”

The California Democrat may have returned to her role as leader of the opposition in the House by criticizing GOP initiatives on the floor, but unless you live in the Capitol Hill fishbowl, the more significant story is how Pelosi has disappeared nationally as one of the key faces of the Democratic Party.

Throughout the 2010 cycle, Republicans made Pelosi the poster child of the Democratic Congress, running against her almost as much as against President Barack Obama.

In a New York special election in 2009, the NRCC ran a spot titled “From Pelosi With Love,” which attacked Democratic nominee Bill Owens for supporting “Pelosi’s big spending.” The move didn’t prove successful, and Owens won.

In Oregon, unsuccessful Republican House candidate Scott Bruun’s first TV spot mentioned Pelosi but didn’t mention either the president or Bruun’s opponent, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D).

And in Idaho, underdog Raul Labrador’s late-October TV spot began, “Walt Minnick sounds more like a Pelosi Democrat every day.” Labrador won the race.

But it wasn’t only Republicans who used the Speaker in their TV ads. Democratic Members such as Jim Marshall (Ga.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) ran ads explicitly distancing themselves from Pelosi. Marshall lost but the other two hung on.

In fact, Ad Age noted that Evan Tracey of Campaign Media Analysis Group estimated that more than $65 million was spent on television commercials that mentioned then-Speaker Pelosi’s name.

But recently, Pelosi has been harder to find than a 32-ounce steak at a vegetarian dinner party — at least when it comes to the national media.

The change isn’t surprising. In fact, it was almost inevitable.

With Republicans now in the majority in the House and Democrats controlling the Senate, Pelosi is much less relevant than she was.

The far better story in the House is the GOP leadership’s challenge controlling the rambunctious freshman class, not Pelosi’s role in opposing the agenda of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

The former Speaker would have to say something pretty outrageous to get much coverage these days from a major news outlet. Everyone knows that the House is a heavily hierarchical body, and being the leader of 191 House Democrats isn’t a very powerful position, especially when your party has the presidency and controls the Senate.

Pelosi continues to release statements on everything from Women’s History Month (March 1) and the February jobs report (Friday) to Boehner’s steps to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (also Friday).

And she continues to have her weekly press briefings. But the attendance at those events has dropped significantly to less than half of what it was when she was Speaker, according to one regular attendee. (One Democratic insider I spoke with disputed that assessment, asserting that more people attend the briefing now because it takes place in a much roomier space.)

Pelosi is still doing her job, including participating in Democratic message meetings. It’s just that most reporters don’t care, since she has a much less exciting and influential job after the November elections.

I don’t doubt that Pelosi would like to be a bigger part of the political conversation (she’s a politician, after all), but I also think she’s smart enough to understand that drawing fire away from the Republicans isn’t necessarily what she ought to be doing right now.

She needs to spend her time trying to keep her own troops in line, and that’s not an easy job given the nervousness of the relatively few moderate Democrats left in the Caucus and the growing lack of enthusiasm with the president among the party’s most liberal elements.

“She has been able to keep her Caucus united, and that has kept the focus on the fracture on the Republican side. That’s part of her playbook,” said one Democrat friendly to Pelosi.

Of course, Republicans would love to keep Pelosi in the limelight, which is why they try to bring her into the conversation whenever possible.

The most recent USA Today/Gallup poll (of adults, not registered voters) that included a question about her, conducted in mid-January, found only 33 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Pelosi, while a majority, 54 percent, held an unfavorable view of her.

But GOP attempts to keep Pelosi’s profile high enough to make her an issue next year are almost certain to fall short. Presidential elections — and presidential nominees — drive voters, and the Democratic Party will be defined by Barack Obama, not Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) or Nancy Pelosi, assuming of course that Congressional Democrats don’t do anything crazy.