WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nancy Pelosi is issuing a pointed message to Democrats running for president in 2020: Those liberal ideas that fire up the party’s base are a big loser when it comes to beating President Donald Trump.
Proposals pushed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders like Medicare for All and a wealth tax play well in liberal enclaves like her own district in San Francisco but won’t sell in the Midwestern states that sent Trump to the White House in 2016, she said.
“What works in San Francisco does not necessarily work in Michigan,” Pelosi said at a roundtable of Bloomberg News reporters and editors on Friday. “What works in Michigan works in San Francisco — talking about workers’ rights and sharing prosperity.”
“Remember November,” she said. “You must win the Electoral College.”
Pelosi was careful not to back any one candidate in the party’s contentious presidential contest, but didn’t hold back when asked about which ideas should —and shouldn’t — form the party’s case to American voters. Or about her fears that candidates like Warren and Sanders are going down the wrong track by courting only fellow progressives — and not the middle-of-the-road voters Democrats need to win back from Trump.
This is familiar ground for Pelosi, who has spent the year tussling with the “Squad,” a vanguard of liberal newcomers to the House led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“As a left-wing San Francisco liberal I can say to these people: What are you thinking?” Pelosi said. “You can ask the left — they’re unhappy with me for not being a socialist.”
Her call for caution is backed by the authority she carries as a giant of Democratic politics who rose from the left wing of the party to become the first female speaker of the House and has earned grudging praise from her foes for her skill as a legislator.
She spoke as polls show a significant tightening of the race with Warren edging up on Joe Biden at the top of the field. A New York Times/Siena College survey of Iowa Democrats released Friday showed the top four candidates — Warren, Sanders, Biden and Pete Buttigieg — all bunched up in a five-point spread at the top of the field.
The speaker’s concerns reflect those of many Democratic leaders and donors who believe that left-wing policies will alienate swing voters and lead to defeat.
Warren and Sanders are betting on a different theory — that voters who float between parties are less ideological and can be inspired to vote for candidates who represent bold new change in Washington.
Pelosi said Democrats should seek to build on President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act instead of pushing ahead with the more sweeping Medicare for All plan favored by Warren and Sanders that would create a government-run health care system and abolish private insurance.
“Protect the Affordable Care Act —I think that’s the path to health care for all Americans. Medicare For All has its complications,” Pelosi said, adding that “the Affordable Care Act is a better benefit than Medicare.”
Warren has been under pressure from Biden and other candidates to demonstrate that her plan wouldn’t require tax increases on middle-class Americans.
On Friday, her campaign said it would cost $20.5 trillion and would be funded by raising taxes on large corporations and the wealthy, cracking down on tax evasion, reducing defense spending and putting newly legalized immigrants on the tax rolls. The Biden campaign called that plan “mathematical gymnastics” intended to hide the fact that it would result in higher taxes for the middle class.
Warren swatted back at the criticism, accusing Biden of “running in the wrong presidential primary.”
“Democrats are not going to win by repeating Republican talking points,” the Massachusetts senator said in Des Moines, Iowa. “So, if Biden doesn’t like that, I’m just not sure where he’s going.”
Pelosi also expressed worries about voters’ reactions to the Green New Deal, which Sanders and Warren also support, that calls for radical, rapid reductions in carbon emissions. “There’s very strong opposition on the labor side to the Green New Deal because it’s like 10 years, no more fossil fuel. Really?” she said.
Pelosi said Democrats must stick with pay-as-you-go rules to avoid adding to the debt, a point of contention with left-leaning figures who want to permit more deficit spending for ambitious liberal priorities.
“We cannot just keep increasing the debt,” she said.
Pelosi added that she doesn’t understand the race to the left among some candidates, because “Bernie and Elizabeth own the left, right? Is anybody going to out-left them?”
She stopped short of endorsing a tax on wealth, an idea that Warren and Sanders have embraced as a means to reduce income inequality and expand the safety net. The speaker said she wants “bipartisan” tax changes that lower the debt and fix the “dumb” Republican tax cuts of 2017.
She also steered clear of backing a cap on pay for chief executive officers.
The speaker, who recently led the House to formally vote on an impeachment inquiry into Trump, said the most critical question candidates should be answering for voters is why they should be president.
“Show them what’s in your heart, your hopes and dreams,” she said. “It’s not about you. It’s about them.”