Woman on Top

When it became clear that U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would be the next House Democratic leader, an unusual thing happened: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cheered. Democrats, who felt the party had never found its message in the 2002 campaign, were pleased to have a leader who takes strong positions regardless of political expedience. Republicans, meanwhile, were happy to have the 62-year-old San Francisco liberal as their newest target. It remains to be seen which side will be happier two years from now, but there are good reasons to bet on Pelosi.

Pelosi won the leadership race with 177 votes out of 206 on Nov. 14, shortly after her main competitor, centrist Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), dropped out and endorsed her. And she has the resources to keep the troops rallied once she takes over as minority leader in January. Her prodigious fundraising efforts -- she pulled in close to $8 million for individual candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2002 campaign -- have earned her thanks from colleagues. She'll be able to draw on the support of many natural allies in the House, including women, liberals and members of California's delegation, many of whom she helped get elected. Plus, she's charismatic, telegenic and the first woman to hold the top Democratic position -- all of which will get her valuable media attention and help spread her message.

And that message is likely to be strong. In declaring her candidacy for minority leader, Pelosi made no bones about her intention to confront the GOP. "We must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans," she said. "We cannot allow Republicans to pretend they share our values and then legislate against those values without consequence." In the last election, says Brad Bannon, a Democratic political consultant, "The problem with the party was that it never decided whether to lead the opposition to President Bush or to follow President Bush." Pelosi -- who hasn't been shy about staking out positions that go against both her party leaders and the president, such as her opposition to the resolution giving Bush authority to attack Iraq -- is "just what the doctor ordered," he adds.

Still, Pelosi has her work cut out for her. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll showed that only 30 percent of voters think Democrats have a plan for fixing the country's problems, compared with 50 percent who think Republicans do. To get anywhere in 2004, the Democrats can't just oppose Bush's actions; they have to turn that public perception around. And while the party's 2004 nominee will most clearly define its image, Pelosi's task is to start steering the party back toward its liberal base and providing the voters with a clear idea of what Democrats would do differently if they were in charge. Can she pull it off? She certainly intends to try.

With Republicans vowing to balance the budget while making last year's tax cuts permanent and funding the war on terrorism, the economy will likely be Bush's greatest vulnerability. (If the economy heads south and Democrats score enough points, Bush could face the same one-term fate as his father.) Pelosi is already planning to focus much of her attention there. She hasn't yet offered a specific economic program, but she expects to see one soon. Her first act as incoming minority leader was nominating Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) as assistant to the minority leader; he's the ranking member on the House Budget Committee and an expert on fiscal issues. Spratt's reputation as a budget balancer makes it less likely that Democrats will agree on an economic stimulus package. And while Pelosi sets a liberal agenda, her choice of Spratt acknowledges the power centrists will play in crafting an economic message.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) believes Pelosi will "make our party into a more purposeful party and a more progressive one." Also in Pelosi's favor is the range of her policy strengths. As the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the House Committee on Appropriations, Pelosi is in a good position to set the party's agenda for both domestic and international affairs. Although it's often hard to challenge a wartime president on foreign issues, look for Pelosi to knowledgeably advocate the use of diplomacy rather than force in places such as Iraq.

And expect her appeal to be broader than her eager, liberal-bashing opponents are imagining. During her 15 years in the House, Pelosi has emphasized issues -- in education, health care, housing and the environment -- that appeal not just to the Democrats' base but to swing voters as well. "What Republicans should worry about is that she has the potential to take [these] issues ... and really make inroads with voters who have been trending Republican in the last decade," says Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

No challenge will be more difficult for Pelosi than that of holding the House Democrats' liberal and centrist factions together. But Republicans who think she'll fail on this count may be surprised. As Pelosi herself noted after her victory, she was able to work with the centrist Bill Clinton when she chaired his presidential platform committee in 1992, which could be good training for working with her largely centrist leadership team, especially on economic issues. And the leadership race showed she enjoys support from all segments of the party.

Moreover, after a year as House minority whip, she knows how to count votes. "She's a pragmatic politician as well as a skillful legislator," Moran says of concerns that Pelosi will pull the party too far to the left. She can also rely on Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the incoming whip, and Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the new caucus chair, to court moderates. (Although there were bitter feelings between Pelosi and Hoyer after she defeated him for the whip post last year, the two seem to have buried the hatchet.)

In any case, the party is now ready to see liberal positions prevailing more often. "Democrats more or less concluded that they blew it by trying to pussyfoot around everything," states Barbara Sinclair, a political-science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Another factor that should work for Pelosi is her willingness to take on other politicians. She backed Rep. Lynn Rivers in the Michigan primary against Rep. John Dingell, the House Democrats' longest-serving member, and involved herself in New York's redistricting process. Such decisions show she isn't averse to taking risks or to playing tough politics -- skills she learned from her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., a former congressman and mayor of Baltimore. While some lawmakers have criticized Pelosi for overreaching, her actions more plausibly demonstrate a willingness to lead -- a trait that's been woefully lacking from other House Democrats. Moreover, she's managed to come across as likeable throughout.

Contrasting herself with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), nicknamed "The Hammer," Pelosi told me earlier this 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."

Republicans have already turned delightedly from deriding the "Daschle Democrats" to bashing the "Pelosi Democrats." (A recent article in The Weekly Standard was headlined, "The Pelosi Democrats: Are They Going to Become the Stupid Party?") But former Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.) says Republicans should remember what happened the last time they made an issue of a liberal House leader. In 1982, when Rep. Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) was speaker, Democrats picked up 26 seats. (It should be noted that a lousy economy was also a major factor that year.) And there's another problem in attacking Pelosi: Does a Republican Party that desperately needs (and has been trying to win) women's support really want to be seen as lashing out at a perpetually cheerful grandmother?

In selecting Pelosi, Democrats chose someone who's vowed to fight Bush and to deliver their message more clearly. It's a change that could well return them to power in the House in 2004. If that happens, look for Pelosi to make history again -- this time as the first female speaker of the House.

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