How Nancy Pelosi Took Control

"It's rough around here," Nancy Pelosi says softly, almost in passing, as she scurries down a Capitol hallway from one meeting to another, greeting colleagues and staffers as she goes.

The "here" in question is the House of Representatives, where Pelosi has been the Democratic leader for the past year and a half. What she means is that she heads a party that has lost the capacity to legislate. Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay have decreed that all significant legislation is to be passed by straight GOP party-line votes. Save on the most trivial issues, no floor amendments are permitted under DeLay's rules, and no Democrats are allowed on conference committees, which frequently rewrite major bills in accord with DeLay's diktats.

"It's not anything to whine about," Pelosi says matter-of-factly. "We just have to win. No whining, just winning."

That's a formula that the famously fractious Democratic caucus seems to have embraced. Though they have not been this thwarted in their ability to exercise power since the 1920s, and though the conventional wisdom says that they are locked into their minority status at least until the next decennial reapportionment (in 2012), the House Democrats these days are an improbably upbeat bunch.

Indeed, Democrats of all tendencies sound the same optimistic notes again and again. They are enthused that after years of defections to the Republican position on many key votes, the caucus now displays an almost unprecedented unity in its voting. (Congressional Quarterly found that last year's level of party unity in Democratic voting was the highest since 1960.) They approve of their leaders' consistent attacks on the Bush administration and DeLay's banana Republicans. They feel that all wings of the caucus are getting not only a fair hearing by party leaders but also real input into party positions. They even believe that their leaders' indefatigable fund raising and candidate recruitment have been going so well that they have a shot at retaking the House.

And when asked why they feel this way, all of them come around to the same answer: Nancy Pelosi.

Congressional Democrats, it turns out, were every bit as frustrated as rank and filers by the deliberate themelessness of the Democrats' 2002 congressional campaign. The contentless campaign came after two years of what had been no more than scattershot opposition to the most radically conservative presidency in anyone's memory. Most caucus members genuinely like Dick Gephardt, Pelosi's predecessor as leader, and won't speak ill of his strategy on the record. Still, says one senior member, "Everybody was smarting about the fact that the Democrats had no message." George Miller, a veteran Bay Area congressman and Pelosi's closest ally on the Hill, says, "It was clear what was wrong. ... You'd lost a sense of purpose, you'd lost a sense of direction and commitment. That all had to be restored and rebuilt. Her candidacy became the vehicle by which members could see how that could be achieved."

Pelosi was the whip -- the No. 2 House Democrat -- in 2001-02. Like many of her colleagues, she was deeply frustrated by the failure of the campaign to differentiate the Democrats from George W. Bush. Also like her colleagues, she carefully refuses to blame Gephardt. But two days after the election, when Gephardt announced he would not run again for party leadership, Pelosi issued a declaration of her own candidacy that clearly charted a different direction from Gephardt's. "We must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans," she argued. "We cannot allow Republicans to pretend they share our values and then legislate against those values without consequence."

That fall, before her ascension as minority leader, Pelosi proved her ability to lead the party in a new direction during the fight against the resolution authorizing the administration to go to war in Iraq. When Gephardt announced that he would support the president's proposed resolution, many Democratic members were furious at his capitulation. Pelosi asked South Carolina's John Spratt, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and nobody's idea of a dove, to craft an alternative resolution. The Spratt amendment, which required the president to return to Congress for authorization to use force if the United Nations declined to do so, received 155 votes on the floor, 147 of which came from Democrats (roughly 70 percent of the caucus). Democrats were pleased that Pelosi had enabled them to go on record against a unilateral war, and to do so through the handiwork of a member whose defense credentials were unimpeachable.

By the time Gephardt announced he'd step down, Pelosi had established that she'd let Democrats be Democrats again and that, as the Spratt amendment had shown, she wouldn't let them revert to marginality. Her campaign only lasted a day, at the conclusion of which she produced a letter signed by a majority of caucus members endorsing her candidacy.

She owes her success since then in part to her message, but in equal measure to the contrast with her predecessor. "After awhile," says one senior Hill staffer, "Gephardt just didn't have the feel of a winner. We lost in '94, '96, '98, 2000, and 2002. ... Pelosi, on the other hand, is involved in a three-year-long race for whip, which she wins [in 2001], then wins the race for leader ... then wins the special election in Kentucky [for a formerly Republican seat in February]. That affects how much energy people put into the hundreds of things you have to do to become a winner."

Spend a day trooping around Capitol Hill with Pelosi, as I did this spring, and her virtues and limitations become abundantly apparent. She has a deft touch with the caucus, strategic smarts, an instinct for a winning issue. She also has a rhetorical clunkiness -- heavy on the alliteration -- that makes her sound now and then like a compendium of bumper stickers.

At 10 a.m., emerging from the caucus's weekly conclave, she convenes a press conference on an omnibus Democratic amendment to be offered in the Ways and Means Committee, featuring an array of members from across the Democratic spectrum. She begins by noting the administration's bewilderment at its failure to create more jobs, characterizing Treasury Secretary John Snow, who'd offered congressional testimony the previous day, as "clueless in the Capitol!"

Next, liberals Charles Rangel and Sandy Levin are explaining why their amendment will create more manufacturing jobs. Blue Dog Democrat Charles Stenholm of Texas describes why the amendment is far more fiscally responsible than the Republican alternative. Baron Hill, who represents a Rust Belt Indiana district, talks about the discharge petition he's filed to get the amendment to the floor. Chet Edwards and Brian Baird both reference another provision that will make sales taxes deductible on federal income taxes for taxpayers from states (such as theirs) that don't have income taxes. All these representatives but Rangel and Levin come from swing districts; each is conveying a message that plays well back home.

Then Pelosi is off -- a blur of style and solicitude, heels clicking on the marble floors, inquiring warmly after members in the hallways -- to a very different press conference. This one is a critique of the president's budget coming from the Congressional Black Caucus and the newly formed African-American Working Group, a collection of non-black members who have a large number of blacks in their districts. Eight members speak, including two freshmen and Working Group member Max Sandlin, who faces a very tough re-election contest since Texas Republicans reapportioned his district out from under him. Pelosi begins and ends the conference, flaying the GOP and its budget with a tone of sadness and exasperation as she notes Bush's refusal to fund his own No Child Left Behind education programs. Once again -- twice again, actually -- she calls Snow "clueless in the Capitol!"

Brilliant rhetoric isn't part of Pelosi's repertoire (few legislative leaders have been notable public speakers); neither is anger. In her speeches, she regularly precedes her recitals of Republican outrages with words like "sadly" and "tragically." The tone is one of almost motherly disappointment, and that's hardly the only aspect of Pelosi's leadership that seems shaped by a maternal sensibility. As is clear from the morning's two press conferences, Pelosi more regularly showcases her members -- including freshmen utterly unknown to the media -- than any party leader in modern memory.

"More than anyone else I know, she involves many members of the caucus on bills," says one congressional staff director. "Everybody has a role to play." Pelosi also has a crucial instinct for striking a political balance. Perhaps the most liberal Democrat ever to lead the caucus, she has cultivated a very close relationship with the more moderate party whip, Steny Hoyer of Maryland (her onetime rival in the three-year contest for the whip's position that she won in 2001), and appointed centrist budget and military-affairs expert Spratt to the newly created post of assistant to the leader.

"She is willing to lead in a way that is comfortable to me," says Stenholm. "The [fiscally conservative] Blue Dogs are listened to." On the alternative budget that the Democrats present each year, he adds, "Nancy said ... we'll find a middle ground. ... Had it been a moderate Democrat who said that, [the caucus] would have blown up. But because she had the respect of the liberals, we produced a consensus budget."

Has Pelosi moved to the right to hold the Democrats together? In fact, Pelosi has evolved much as Democratic voters evolved during the presidential primaries: toward a politics that combines populist economics with deficit hawkishness and a heavily armed multilateralism. Nearly a year before Democratic voters figured it out, Pelosi decided that the party needed unity and electability above all else.

The art of winning politics comes naturally to Pelosi. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., had been the ward boss and councilman for Baltimore's Little Italy, then a congressman, and then, from 1947 though 1959, the city's mayor. Accounts of her girlhood home sound like something out of The Last Hurrah -- in particular, her father's daily habit of receiving constituents in his living room. Even today, married to wealth (her husband, Paul, is an investor), she is clearly at home in the world of cigar-chomping ward heelers -- so at ease that the old bulls of the Democratic Party, including such paradigmatic blue-collar Democrats as Pennsylvania's John Murtha, have always felt comfortable with her.

Pelosi's quest for a position of leadership, extending over several decades, has been methodical and brilliant. She was no amateur when she got to Congress, having thrown herself, once her five children all reached school age, into every form of party-support activity conceivable. Her involvement began, she told The American Prospect, soon after she and Paul moved to San Francisco in 1969. "You have a big house," one of her political friends told her. "We'll be using it for Democratic Party events." Over the subsequent 17 years, Pelosi moved from hostess, fund-raiser, and precinct walker to chair of the California Democratic Party, head of the host committee and major planner of the 1984 Democratic national convention, and finance chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee in 1986 (the year the Democrats won back the Senate).

She was first elected to Congress in 1987, asked to run by incumbent Sala Burton just days before Burton died of cancer. Pelosi amassed a liberal record -- opposing the Reagan administration's Central American interventions, lobbying successfully to restore the Supplemental Security Income payments to legal immigrants that the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 had abolished. She also won an appointment to the House Appropriations Committee, on which her father had served in the 1940s. Pelosi's attraction to the committee wasn't merely sentimental, however. She wanted to be on it, says Judy Lemons, until recently Pelosi's longtime chief of staff, because it was one of three "juice" committees "where you can help other members and serve your district." California already had several Democrats on the committee, however, so Pelosi mobilized support from each caucus and region to persuade the Steering and Policy Committee to appoint her.

What Pelosi's district, more than any other in Congress, needed from the Appropriations Committee was funding for AIDS treatment and research -- and Pelosi delivered. "She was progressive and tactical," says David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, who was already a senior member when Pelosi joined, "and, most of all, operational" -- that is, able to understand other members' needs and able to put together deals to members' mutual satisfaction.

It's true Pelosi doesn't look the part of the consummate pol. Until Pelosi, American legislative leaders have been male, and, usually, either avuncular, like Hastert or Tip O'Neill, or disheveled and a bit obsessed, like Newt Gingrich or Phil Burton, Pelosi's own mentor. Pelosi, of course, is neither avuncular nor a mess. On the contrary, she comes across as quietly elegant, uncommonly warm, and extraordinarily well organized (for which she credits the habits learned while raising five children). Though 64 (two years older than Hastert) and a grandmother of five, she seems a good 15 years younger. Her office has long been famous for serving the best food in the Capitol. "You walk into meetings and she always has chocolate and fruit," one longtime staffer remarks. "It creates an atmosphere where people feel more comfortable. It's this graciousness."

Yet "[you] can be misled by her when you first meet her," cautions Robert Matsui, the Sacramento congressman whom Pelosi has installed as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). "You think she's charming and sophisticated, but she's one of the toughest human beings I've ever met in terms of her goal orientation and her intensity."

Fred Ross Jr., her former San Francisco chief of staff, cites one instance of her toughness. In 1998, following the assassination of an activist bishop, Pelosi and George Miller traveled to Guatemala to investigate the killing. After meeting with church and human-rights activists, "she and Miller went to the Defense Ministry, which is a scary place. The defense minister looked at her and thought he could bullshit her. She stopped him cold. 'I've been on the [House] Intelligence Committee for 12 years,' she said. 'I have this pain in my back from sitting up reading thousands of pages of transcripts about what's happened down here. So don't even say that.' He was stunned."

Hill Democrats have long since gotten over being stunned. Obey calls Pelosi "our Maggie Thatcher. She's tough as hell -- and has a very nice style to her."

Nancy Pelosi's school for hardball was in session one morning in late March, when the Democratic caucus convened to consider her proposal to require chairs on leading subcommittees to observe party discipline -- a term not previously invoked very often on the Democratic side of the aisle. With her members unable to offer amendments to Republican bills, Pelosi places a premium on the Democrats' sticking together on floor votes.

Pelosi had been particularly rankled when 16 Democrats crossed over to give the Republicans a 220-to-215 victory on Bush's Medicare "reform" bill just before Thanksgiving. "Medicare was her biggest disappointment," says Murtha, "though she may not tell you that." Rather than whine, though, Pelosi proposed a party rule change to give the caucus' Steering and Policy Committee -- a body the leader almost invariably controls -- the power to select subcommittee chairs on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a juice committee with regulatory powers so vast that members are able to raise large sums of money they can contribute to embattled fellow members or challengers. Having a subcommittee chair, in short, is one way to become a power in the House or to run for higher office. Pelosi's proposal tied advancement in the party to adherence to the party's positions on floor votes. As Pelosi put it, there are just three good reasons to break with the caucus: "conscience, constituents, or the Constitution."

One week before the caucus, two of its most conservative members, Stenholm and Cal Dooley, sent an open letter to their colleagues questioning whether the measure would just make representatives from conservative districts less electable by pressuring them to cast votes that could hurt them at home. When the caucus convened, Dooley and Maryland's Al Wynn spoke against it. Three caucus leaders -- Hoyer, Obey, and Henry Waxman -- argued on its behalf, noting that the reform didn't preclude breaking from the caucus if the vote was difficult in a member's district, but it did raise the bar for deviating. "Under Gephardt, you could just say it's a hard vote in my district and let it go at that," one member says. "Nancy says, 'No -- you'll have to come before the caucus and articulate a reason.'" The measure passed overwhelmingly on an unrecorded vote.

Pelosi herself didn't speak in the caucus, but she had made her feelings clear to members in advance of the meeting. "If you're a loose conglomerate of people who have a commonality of interests but who can't tie it together," she told the Prospect, "who wants to join that club?" Indeed, the reform was directed as much at boosting the members' self-esteem as it was at disciplining wayward members. "If you feel that anybody can vote any way on a key vote, it's dispiriting," says one of the Democrats' most senior staffers. "Breaking that psychology is really important."

Pelosi's greatest skill, however, is her ability to synthesize positions that reflect the various inclinations of her caucus and the political opportunities of the moment -- and the period. According to Obey, "She is really good at walking into a room with 15 people [who have] different opinions on subjects, [and she'll] synthesize and say with great clarity, 'Here's what I think we ought to do. She's very good ... at finding common ground. That's why she's not a liberal Democratic leader; she's a Democratic leader who happens to be liberal."

If anyone can attest to Pelosi's persuasive powers, it's Ben Chandler. Just last November, Chandler, then Kentucky's attorney general, lost a close gubernatorial election to Republican Ernie Fletcher, whose congressional seat, accordingly, was abruptly open. A special election was scheduled for February 17, and Chandler, as he told the Prospect, "had no plans to make the race. I was worn out. I was, in some respects, tired of the entire process. And that's when Nancy Pelosi stepped in."

Considering that Bush had carried the heavily rural district by 13 percent over Al Gore in 2000, Pelosi had no easy task persuading Chandler to run. Yet Pelosi prevailed. "She is not easy to say 'no' to," Chandler says. "She demonstrated that it was just as important to [the DCCC] as to me, because they were determined to recapture the House. After talking to her, I was in no doubt as to that determination."

"We were never supposed to win this seat," Pelosi told the Prospect. Nevertheless, Pelosi instructed the DCCC to poll the district in December, and the results unexpectedly designated 30,000 voters as "very anti-Bush." Beyond the district's Democrats' general rage at Bush, there was a specific issue that Pelosi had cultivated: a Dickensian administration proposal to deduct any additions to disabled veterans' benefits from their military pensions. In March, Pelosi received the Unsung Hero Award from The American Legion for her work against this policy.

With veterans constituting 12 percent of Chandler's district, and with the administration also threatening to close a local veterans' hospital, "The veterans issue was the most prominent issue in the race," Chandler says. His opponent, Republican Alice Forgy Kerr, ran on Bush's coattails; her ads boasted that she was "cut from the same cloth" as the president. In the end, Chandler had the better message.

But it was on money and mobilization that Pelosi really delivered. Though Kerr outspent Chandler by $1.2 million to $900,000, the DCCC, with funds chiefly raised by Pelosi, outspent its GOP counterpart by a huge margin, $1.4 million to $850,000. The disparity in mobilization was even greater. In the final week of the campaign, the DCCC dispatched 11 buses carrying 500 volunteers -- chiefly congressional staffers and advocacy-group activists -- from Washington to Lexington. On election day, turnout -- which one local paper predicted would come in at 10 percent -- reached one-third of the electorate, and Chandler defeated his stunned Republican opponent by 12 percent.

The victory marked the first time in 13 years that the Democrats had beaten the Republicans in a special election for a seat that had been held by a Republican. The second instance, most observers predict, will come in early June, when South Dakota Democrat Stephanie Herseth, bolstered by a bankroll that Pelosi has raised, is expected to win the seat vacated by Republican Bill Janklow after his conviction for reckless driving.

Chandler's victory not only brightened the mood of the caucus; it also greatly enhanced Pelosi's credibility with its members. From the day she became leader, Pelosi promised her colleagues that they would take back the House this November. Pelosi is convinced that 2004, unlike 2002, is a year in which Democrats won't lack for either message or mobilization. Her chief task has been to come up with the money and the candidates. She and Matsui have designated roughly 18 House incumbents whom the party will have to seriously defend this November, and they've targeted about 40 Republican seats for major challenges. Working with Marc Gersh of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, they've identified 42 districts currently held by Republicans where the average Democratic performance in competitive statewide races over the last three elections is at least 47 percent.

Pelosi spends most of her time recruiting candidates (she's found about 32 so far) and raising the money to win these races. At the conclusion of the first quarter of 2004, the DCCC had $16 million in the bank -- not just a new record but only $3 million shy of the total its invariably better-heeled Republican counterpart had on hand. Each week, she spends at least three or four days on the road in search of funding, and to act as a closer for attractive candidates who need encouragement to run. "Nobody says 'no,'" says DCCC staffer Kori Bernards, "to Nancy Pelosi." Matsui estimates that Pelosi's visited more than 50 cities during this election cycle. When in Washington, she routinely spends late nights dialing for dollars to the West Coast.

Matsui acknowledges that the Democrats will have to "catch a wave" if they're to prevail in November. Pelosi intends to be ready if there's so much as a swell.

When I sit down to interview Pelosi after a day of rapid-fire meetings and press conferences, we are in her elegant and chocolate-laden office, whose windows would look out over the Capitol lawn and the Library of Congress were it not for all the security-related construction. If Pelosi prevails and the Democrats retake the House this November, she by rights should move to the still more elegant speaker's office, but she is plainly loyal to her current office for one simple reason: It was Tip O'Neill's, and he kept it even when he was speaker.

Members of her caucus understand how Pelosi provides a link to the Democratic Party of O'Neill and her father, and how well she embodies the traits of the most adept party leaders of old: a sense of inclusion, a knack for discipline, a feel for both principle and compromise. When the public looks at Pelosi, though, it sees a breakthrough figure in American politics, the woman who shattered the highest glass ceiling yet, and who will go higher still should she become speaker of the House, third in the line of presidential succession, after November. "Many Democrats are getting super excited about [the prospect of] the first woman speaker," says the DCCC's Bernards. "Since Nancy started signing our mail, we've had over a million dollars a month for over 10 months in a row now."

At any given moment, Pelosi can choose to be a symbol of continuity with the old order or the personification of a brave new one -- or both. "I think we are going to win," she says. "And we'll turn this" -- gesturing to denote both the room and the political climate -- "back into Tip O'Neill's" -- that is, the speaker's -- "office."

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