Nancy Pelosi, Same Job, Different Coalition

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds a news conference with newly elected Democratic House members on Capitol Hill.

Nancy Pelosi has confounded expectation before. Following the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans recaptured the House on a wave of Tea Party indignation, Pelosi was widely, and unjustly, criticized for leading House Democrats to debacle. She had played a key role in enacting Obamacare, a program that the Obama administration chose not to defend as Election Day drew nigh. She had not paid enough attention to solving the recession, critics argued, though in fact House Democrats had passed additional stimulus measures that failed to surmount Senate filibusters. It was time, the critics said, for her to go.

But Pelosi disagreed, and her House colleagues turned out to be in no mood to challenge her decision. Now, once again, she has surprised the Washington conventional wisdom by signing on for another two years atop the House Democratic caucus. 

Pelosi’s bona fides are hard to contest. Indeed, by the measure of enacting nation-changing legislation, Pelosi is clearly the most consequential House speaker in American history. No speaker since Henry Clay, who wielded the gavel in the 1810s and 1820s, has had so great an effect on American life.

During the 20th century, there were distinguished and accomplished speakers, of course, most notably Sam Rayburn and Tip O'Neill. But neither was speaker during the great reforms of the 1930s and the 1960s, and the men who were speakers during those years—Henry Rainey and Joseph Byrns during the New Deal, John McCormack during the Great Society—played no major role in the epochal reforms of those eras.

Newt Gingrich did play a key role in rolling back welfare laws, but his speakership was plagued by his ethics problems and his rhetorical excesses, and he left Congress, to his fellow Republicans' relief, after their setbacks in the 1998 elections.

Since Pelosi's speakership coincided with a period of ideological and partisan polarization in Congress (chiefly the result of the extinction of liberal and moderate Republicanism), her triumphs were necessarily those of a party leader. In 2006 and 2008, she led House Democrats to sweeping electoral victories, in good measure the result of her fundraising, targeting, and candidate-recruitment prowess.

In the battle for health-care reform in 2010, she had no cushion of Republican votes she could count on to ease the pressure on House Democrats. All of the votes had to come from her own nervous ranks. And she delivered them.

When the upset victory of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown cost the Democrats their Senate supermajority, Pelosi played two crucial roles in pushing health-care reform to enactment. First, when President Barack Obama was receiving advice to jettison the bill and settle for much smaller, incremental legislation, Pelosi argued that major reform and a major victory were still possible and that anything less would amount to a missed opportunity of historic proportions. In time, Obama agreed.

Second, when her whips brought her a list of 68 House Democrats whose votes they considered to be in play, Pelosi decided to personally lobby each of them. As a speaker who understood her individual members' districts and constituents, she had a good sense of which of her politically endangered colleagues were least likely to jeopardize their seats with a yes vote—enabling her to allow the most endangered ones to vote no. Together, she and Obama became the most effective vote-getters since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Throughout her career, Pelosi has combined a deep commitment to progressive causes with an old-school pol’s ability to count and swap votes. She was, in fact, the product of both a paleo- and neo-political machine. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was both a New Deal-era congressman and then a three-term mayor of Baltimore, who—like the mythic ideal of an old-style boss, Frank Skeffington, in The Last Hurrah—regularly heard out constituents in the living room of his home, where the young Nancy witnessed politics at its most personal. Later, as a liberal activist in San Francisco, she impressed Phil Burton, the San Francisco congressman who was the leader of House liberals in the mid-1960s and 1970s. Burton’s deal-making skills greatly increased the power of liberals in the House Democratic caucus and expanded a host of Great Society programs. When he died suddenly in 1981, he was succeeded by his equally savvy wife, Sala, who, on her deathbed in 1987, suggested that the Burton forces get behind Nancy in the special election that would follow her death. Which they did—sending Pelosi to Congress. 

In the House, Pelosi not only emerged as a leader of the growing liberal faction but impressed such veteran Democrats as John Murtha and Dave Obey with her ability to deliver votes and make trade-offs on tough measures. Both of them hailed her as “operational”—that is, able to wheel and deal with the best of them. When I profiled her for the Prospect in 2004, Obey called her "our Maggie Thatcher. She's tough as hell—and has a very nice style to her." 

Able to win the support of the old bulls, House liberals, and the huge California House delegation, Pelosi defeated several more centrist rivals in a contested election for Democratic whip in 2000 and ascended to the party leader post after the 2002 election, when Richard Gephardt stepped down. That fall, she had led a surprisingly large majority of House Democrats in opposing the resolution authorizing George W. Bush’s administration to go to war in Iraq, while Gephardt had supported the measure.

In 2006, benefiting from public revulsion with the Iraq War, Democrats recaptured the House, making Pelosi the first female House speaker. Two years later, surfing on the Obama wave, they captured even more seats, boosting their strength to 260 Democrats in the 435-member House. Pelosi’s candidate recruitment and tireless fundraising were crucial to both victories. Following the GOP’s return to power in 2010, she was widely expected to step down as party leader, but when she chose not to, there was no groundswell in Democratic ranks to urge her to reconsider, much less challenge her.

Last week, Democrats actually won a majority of the votes cast in House races, but chiefly by virtue of Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts following the 2010 census, the GOP maintained its hold on the House. Those gerrymandered districts will remain a major obstacle to the Democrats’ recapture of the House for the duration of the decade. 

The day before she announced she would continue as the Democrats’ House leader, Pelosi convened the newly elected Democratic congressional delegation. For the first time, a minority of its members were white men. Of the roughly 200 members of the incoming Democratic caucus, there would be 61 women, 43 African Americans, 26 Latinos, 11 Asians, one bisexual, and five gay members. Pelosi’s Democrats, like Obama’s Democrats, mirror the new America, and it took all her old-style skills to hammer together this new-look party. Despite the GOP’s gerrymandered advantage in the House, America is changing rapidly, and Pelosi clearly wants to continue to help shape that change. 

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