WASHINGTON — The personal attacks on Nancy Pelosi may have hit a low point in August, when Fox News host Glenn Beck joked about adding poison to the House speaker's glass of wine.
"Drink it! Drink it! Drink it!" Beck urged, as a staffer wearing a Pelosi mask sat next to him, holding a glass of red wine to her lips.
As opponents try to defeat President Barack Obama's health care plan, the California Democrat has emerged as their top target. In the latest sign, the Republican Party is featuring Pelosi prominently in advertisements, putting heat on conservative Democrats by reminding voters that their party's boss is a liberal from San Francisco.
Republicans are trying to cash in on Pelosi's unpopularity. While she's the most well-known member of Congress, only 19 percent of Americans give her positive marks, and 48 percent disapprove of her performance, according to a Harris Poll released Wednesday.
Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, said similar strategies had worked in the past, noting that Republicans are going after Pelosi in the same way that Democrats criticized Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich when he became the speaker of the House of Representatives after the 1994 elections.
"Attacking moderate members based on who they elected as a leader has a long and venerable tradition in politics," Kousser said. "The leader of a party is almost always more extreme than the most vulnerable members of the party, so tying them to the person they voted for in leadership is almost always a political winner."
Two new ads began running Monday.
In Colorado, one is aimed at Democratic Rep. Betsey Markey: "Nancy Pelosi and Democrats are rushing to pass a big government health care plan, and Betsey Markey may help her do it," the radio ad says.
In Alabama, the National Republican Congressional Committee unveiled an ad against Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright, calling him a "Pelosi shill" who votes with the speaker 70 percent of the time: "If Bobby Bright is voting with Pelosi, then he isn't voting with us. ... Tell him NOT to vote with Nancy Pelosi on health care," the ad says.
On Tuesday, the committee followed up by urging Bright to take "the Pelosi pledge," promising that he wouldn't vote for Pelosi if House leadership elections were held today. The pledge reads in part: "Whereas Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to strong-arm her divisive and radical policies through Congress and onto the American people, leading Americans and fellow Democrats to lose faith in her ability to lead. Whereas during Speaker Pelosi's tenure, she has wasted over a trillion dollars, pushed through a national energy tax and facilitated the largest deficit in American history. Whereas Speaker Pelosi now has her eyes set on a radical, irresponsible health care plan that may be the final straw for Democrats and Republicans alike."
In Missouri, Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton took a shot Tuesday from David Cole, the head of the state's Republican Party: "The people of Missouri's 4th Congressional District do not agree with Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time, so why does Ike Skelton? Skelton is no longer the conservative he once claimed to be. Instead, he has become more partisan, more liberal and more out of touch with the people he represents," Cole said.
Attacking Pelosi is nothing new for Republicans.
As gasoline prices soared last year, Republican members of Congress routinely said that Americans were paying a "Pelosi premium" at the pump, noting that energy costs had increased since she became the speaker of the House. This summer's attacks have increased in intensity as Americans grapple with the future of the nation's health-care system, which will dominate Congress' agenda when lawmakers return to work next week.
Kousser said it was much easier and quicker for Republicans to make the case that a Democrat was liberal by linking him or her to Pelosi than it was to talk about votes and the details of complicated policy issues: "Everyone in the country knows that she's a San Francisco liberal, so tying a member to her is like tying them in a very concrete way to a political platform."
He said he wasn't surprised that some of the attacks on Pelosi had become so personal.
"That's where we are in American politics today," he said. "You could say this lowers the level of discourse, but I'm not sure we haven't already been at rock bottom for a decade."
Pelosi's office declined to comment, referring questions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Ryan Rudominer, the national press secretary for the committee, said the previous attacks on Pelosi didn't work with voters.
"When Republicans have no ideas to lower health care costs for the middle class, no plans to help create jobs and a fiscal record that took our country from surplus to deficits, tired and unimaginative personal attacks is all Republicans have," he said. "These attacks didn't work in 2004, didn't work in 2006, didn't work in 2008 and they won't work in 2010."
Pelosi has been criticized sharply at many of the town hall meetings on health care that members of Congress held during their summer break. She angered many Republicans last month when she and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wrote an opinion piece in USA Today, saying that those who'd shouted down different views at the town hall meetings were "un-American."
"Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American," they wrote. "Drowning out the facts is how we failed at this task for decades."
At his town hall meeting last week in Rancho Cordova, Calif., Republican Rep. Dan Lungren said it was "unfortunate" that Pelosi and Hoyer would make such an argument.
"I think it's a great example of American democracy," he said of the town hall meetings.
One of Lungren's constituents, 62-year-old Steve Correa of Rancho Cordova, drew applause when he said that Pelosi's comments offended him.
"She's talking about how un-American we are. ... If I hate it so much, then I would get the hell out of this country," Correa said.
Despite the growing opposition, Pelosi is promising that the House will pass a health care bill this fall. During the recess, she promoted the legislation at events in San Francisco and Denver, drawing protesters in both cities.
Last week, she made an appeal to Democratic donors to raise money to counter "smears" by Republican opponents. She accused the Republican Party of doing everything it can to kill health-care legislation.
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