President Bush signed the Medicare reform bill Monday morning. Later that afternoon, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) held a rally for a group of lawmakers and senior citizens who were opposed to the bill. The event was a photo op, to be sure, but it was also a fitting end to Pelosi's first year as House minority leader.
As The Washington Post recently reported, Pelosi has exceeded nearly all expectations during the past year. She did not walk into an easy situation; when she took office last January, many Democrats were unhappy. As the Post explained, Dems had failed in four consecutive elections to win back the House, and Republicans were deriding their new leader as a San Francisco liberal. Further, noted the Post, some Democrats were quietly concerned that Pelosi would give little heed to the party's more moderate members. Sure, Pelosi had a year as deputy to former Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's (D-Mo.) under her belt. But it was very much an open question as to whether she would prove effective in taking on the legendarily tenacious House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and the other members of the Republican leadership.
Through a combination of grit and optimism, though, Pelosi has proved during the last year that the answer to that question is clearly "yes." Though Republicans may be celebrating their victory on Medicare, it was among the toughest fights DeLay has endured in recent years. The GOP had to keep the roll-call vote open for nearly three hours to ensure the bill's passage. As Pelosi noted in a statement, "The whole time that Members were on the floor, there were overtures to Members of Congress saying, 'What do you want? What do you need?' They spent billions of dollars of the taxpayers' money to win this vote on the floor." The narrowness of the Republican victory in the House stands in stark contrast to the ease of their triumph in the Senate (even though, based on numbers alone, you would think Democrats would be able to exert more influence in the Senate). Pelosi has also put up a tough fight on other bills, such as one that created school vouchers for Washington, D.C. DeLay won that battle, but only by a single vote.
Pelosi has been unafraid to take Democrats to task when they oppose the party leadership. As Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told the Post, Pelosi called him into her office when he voted for an earlier version of the Medicare bill this summer. "I didn't leave the room with any questions about where she stood," he said. "It's an extremely refreshing sign of leadership. There's no guesswork." For too long Democratic legislators have faced few consequences for splitting off from their party on crucial votes. As The New Republic recently editorialized, a dose of discipline is what the Democratic Party on the Hill needs. On the House side, at least, Pelosi has begun to provide it.
She has managed to be tough without straying into the questionable territory that Republicans have sometimes found themselves occupying on questions of party discipline. (The controversy over who tried to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) into voting for the Medicare bill is one such example; at Slate on Monday, Timothy Noah wondered if the Republican leadership was behind the bribe offer.)
Pelosi understands when to cajole her members with arguments and when to bend them with threats. As she told me last year, "We don't have to start with a sledgehammer to convince people of our point of view, but we have to be fully prepared to go to that place. I always say, 'Start with a feather, and then you can end up with a steamroller.'" Using force only when necessary ensures that members will at least listen to you when it really counts.
About a year ago, The Weekly Standard asked in a headline, "The Pelosi Democrats: Are They Going to Become the Stupid Party?" But conservatives have had to tone down their personal criticisms of Pelosi -- perhaps because they realized that the strategy would backfire as Republicans try to court female voters, but also because their preemptive criticisms turned out not to be true. Pelosi has reached out to both liberal and moderate Democrats while at times supporting the party's more conservative members. According to the Post, she recently placated moderates by agreeing not to help Americans for Gun Safety launch a gun-control campaign. That may have not been in Pelosi's best interest as an individual legislator, but as the leader of a party that's lost a disconcerting number of moderate Democrats to the GOP, it was the right move.
Beyond holding members accountable and being inclusive, Pelosi has provided positive leadership at a time when Democrats on the Hill might otherwise have every reason to project defeatism. She comes across on television as likeable -- rather than angry -- as she sells the party's agenda. Her sunny outlook could help convince swing voters that Democrats aren't just ticked off about Republican actions in Congress and at the White House, but that they actually have their own plan of action should they regain control of the government.
Of course, the ultimate test of Pelosi's skills will be whether she can help Democrats retake the House. That probably won't happen in 2004, but there is reason to believe that, under her leadership, it could happen before too long. Last December, when she had yet to take the reins and many doubted her ability to provide effective leadership in the House, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) talked to me about Pelosi for a Prospect article. "She's a pragmatic politician as well as a skillful legislator," he said.
During the last year, she's proved him right.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.