In the wake of President Trump's decision last Friday to sign a temporary continuing resolution that reopened the government for three weeks, thus ending the longest federal shutdown in American history, the most popular interpretation of this development (widely held in all but the most pro-Trump corners of the conservative media) was that Trump had conceded defeat in a one-on-one battle of wills with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi, by most accounts, had personally outmaneuvered, outwitted, and simply out-toughed the president. The resulting headlines tell this story clearly enough: "How Nancy Pelosi Ended Donald Trump's Shutdown" by Ezra Klein of Vox; "'She's Not One to Bluff': How Pelosi Won the Shutdown Battle" by Politico; "How Nancy Pelosi Used Her Smarts and Strength to Absolutely Dominate Donald Trump" by columnist Elizabeth Drew.
This Pelosi-centered frame prevailed even though the precipitating legislative maneuver that preceded Trump's concession occurred in the Senate. Last Thursday, Mitch McConnell introduced a Trump-backed proposal that included billions in funding for a border wall; it received only 1 Democratic vote (from Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Senate's least liberal Democrat) and lost 2 votes from arch-conservative Republicans. McConnell then allowed consideration of a Democratic alternative "clean bill" that lacked wall funding, which attracted a higher level of support by combining a unanimous vote from Democrats with 6 defecting Republicans. It was clear at that point that momentum had turned against the White House.
According to a report from Axios, it was only after Chuck Schumer told McConnell that Trump's idea for a "down payment" on the wall funding was a non-starter among Senate Democrats that Trump was convinced to drop his demands and reopen the government. Schumer had previously goaded Trump into taking responsibility for the shutdown during a December meeting in the Oval Office that Trump had abruptly opened to the press. Throughout the entire process, Schumer and Pelosi seem to have worked in close collaboration to oppose the White House and congressional Republicans—even appearing together to deliver the response to Trump's national address on January 8. Yet the same media stories that featured blaring headlines crediting Pelosi for besting Trump relegated Schumer's role to brief passages in the bottom paragraphs when they mentioned him at all.
Why have the two Democratic leaders received such different coverage, in both quantity and quality, during and after the shutdown? Here are three reasons for this pattern:
1. Personal Reputation. Before the shutdown occurred, Pelosi was widely considered to be a committed liberal, while Schumer was viewed as much more of a "squish." This distinction is not unjustified. Yet it reflects the differing institutional constraints of the two Democrats as much as their personal instincts. The procedural complexity of the Senate requires its leaders to be more transactional than the majoritarian House, and Schumer's need to defend ten members of his caucus running for reelection in Trump-carried states during the 2017–18 session of Congress constrained his ability to lead the public opposition to the president—in contrast to Pelosi, who was freer to play offense. But it also meant that media analysts and partisans on both sides were likely to view the shutdown resolution as a victory for the supposedly tougher and more principled Pelosi regardless of the true nature of events. (Note the January 15 headline from the satirical Onion: "Chuck Schumer Honestly Pretty Amazed He Hasn't Caved Yet.")
2. Job Title. Put simply, Pelosi is the leader of a majority and the most powerful legislator in her chamber, and Schumer is not. It is thus natural in a sense for her to be treated as the primary face of the opposition to Trump, even if the Senate minority's ability to exercise obstructive power via the filibuster is a fundamental characteristic of our political system. Pelosi was also in the position to send a highly-publicized letter to Trump disinviting the president from giving his State of the Union address until the shutdown was ended, which certainly added to the perceptions that the larger partisan standoff over the border wall amounted to a personal conflict between the two of them.
3. Gender. Nancy Pelosi has been a highly skilled and effective legislative leader for 16 years, including a very productive previous tenure as speaker between 2007 and 2010. It is hardly a coincidence, however, that after almost two decades in power she has achieved a newfound status as a national feminist icon at a time when the opposing president is Donald Trump. Even for the mainstream press, the idea of anti-Trump forces being led by a woman is simply too good a story line not to adopt as the dominant frame of the current partisan divide in Washington. Journalists are especially interested to know what Trump thinks of Pelosi—a curiosity that does not extend equally to Schumer or many other Democrats.
Gender is on everybody's mind more than usual these days. If, say, Patty Murray were serving as the Senate minority leader rather than Schumer, it's very likely that the events of the past several weeks would have been framed as "Trump versus two women" rather than "Trump versus Pelosi," even if the legislative roles, sequence of developments, and final outcome had remained the same. At a time when journalists and citizens alike are even more inclined than usual to view politics in terms of the personalities and identities of individuals rather than larger structural or institutional factors, it's worth remembering that the stories we're told are sometimes the stories we're in the mood to hear.