It was hardly a surprise that Republicans didn't waste any time calling Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) names once Democrats elected her House minority leader. Wesley Pruden, the editor-in-chief of The Washington Times, named her the Democrats' "new prom queen." Conservative columnist Cal Thomas referred to the Pelosi liberals as the "Fidel Castro wing of the Democratic Party." And The National Review dubbed her a "latte liberal."
What was surprising was that the mainstream media joined the party, repeatedly assigning the word "liberal" to Pelosi. When Tim Russert hosted the representative on Meet the Press just days after her election, he introduced her as "California liberal Nancy Pelosi." Russert wasn't alone: A recent LexisNexis search revealed that "Nancy Pelosi" and "liberal" yielded more than 1,000 documents.
Yet even though Rep. Tom DeLay's (R-Texas) ascension to the majority leader post is part of the biggest change in House Republican leadership in almost a decade -- and while DeLay's record is at least as conservative as Pelosi's is liberal -- the press has given his ideological position much less play. A LexisNexis search of "Tom DeLay" and "conservative" returned only 534 documents from the last 90 days.
So what's going on? Why is the media -- assumed by many to start with a liberal bias -- applying the liberal label so readily to Pelosi but not the conservative tag to DeLay? Journalists insist there's no hidden political agenda. "He's been on the national scene for several years," Newsweek's Eleanor Clift told me. "The conservative label is not routinely pinned on him because people know where he is on the political spectrum." But there are other factors at work here, including journalists who treat "liberal" as a dirty word, the rise of the conservative media and even an element of sexism. None of which is an excuse for the vast difference in the media's coverage of these two leaders -- but all of which could impact how well Pelosi and DeLay succeed in their jobs.
The fact that Nancy Pelosi is generating a lot of ink isn't a surprise. The press loves a fresh face, and right now she's hot. It doesn't hurt that Pelosi, the first woman to hold the party leader job and a naturally bubbly person, has an eager press shop. But in covering this story, the press has fallen back on its old habit of using shorthand labels to describe complex subjects. (It would be too hard for reporters to say that Pelosi is liberal on some issues, centrist on others.) And by using "liberal" as a negative label, the press is able to scare viewers into paying attention to its stories.
Pelosi hasn't denied that she's a liberal, but she hasn't gone out of her way to promote the idea either (as opposed to DeLay, who mentions that he is a "committed fiscal conservative" on his congressional Web site), which makes it strange that the press feels compelled to assign the liberal label to her. Asked how she compares herself with DeLay on the political Richter scale, Pelosi replied: "I believe that I may be more progressive than some of my colleagues, and be to the left of center. I believe that Tom DeLay would take pride in being considered an ultraconservative on the radical right of his party and drives the party from that point of view." But while the media rushed to call Pelosi a liberal, they gave Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) the centrist label -- even though the two voted together 85.2 percent of the time in the last seven years, according to Congressional Quarterly. Pelosi's record is nothing to hide from: She supports access to abortion, safeguarding the environment and defending human rights -- all positions with which the majority of Americans agree.
Let's compare that with DeLay's record. The former pest exterminator, aka "The Hammer," has called the Environmental Protection Agency the "Gestapo of government." He told Enron executives to hire some of his friends several years ago in an effort to win support for energy deregulation. The born-again Christian has told parents not to send their kids to Baylor or Texas A&M universities because both schools teach evolution (though he attended Baylor and his daughter graduated from Texas A&M). He also told WORLD magazine last month: "I think about everything as it comes through my faith in Christ. ... I feel every issue is a moral issue. Every vote that I take is a moral vote, whether it's taking money from people and giving it to somebody else, or fighting the war on terrorism." So much for the separation between church and state.
Besides that, DeLay set up a "war room" to mastermind the House's impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. He got in trouble with the House Ethics Committee in 1998, after telling a trade association not to hire a former Democratic member of Congress as its leader. And the Web site for his political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority (at goptoday.com), links to articles by radical conservative David Horowitz. Last year, for example, Horowitz wrote: "The agendas of the hard left never really change. Support for America's enemies in the Cold War; support for America's terrorist enemies now."
It's stunning that reporters have given DeLay's conservative politics so little notice, particularly when his power just keeps growing on Capitol Hill. For one thing, all of the major House party leaders -- including Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and incoming Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) -- owe their jobs to DeLay. (Stephen Moore, who runs the conservative Club for Growth, has called DeLay the "Vito Corleone of the House.") And occupying the more public position of majority leader isn't likely to affect DeLay's views. "I know who I am," he said recently. "I stand up for what I believe. ... I'm going to continue to stand up for what I believe and be aggressive about it."
Shortly after Pelosi's election, conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, on his Web site, superimposed an image of Pelosi's head on the body of a beauty pageant contestant and called her "Miss America." (Can you imagine someone placing DeLay's head on, say, Fabio's body?) As if that wasn't demeaning enough, Limbaugh decided to further turn the gender screws. Pelosi, he said, is just one of a group of California women -- including Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein -- who are "always whining and complaining about something -- and it shows."
There have been other examples of sexism in the media's coverage of Pelosi. After Pelosi, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Landrieu's opponent, Suzanne Terrell, appeared on Meet the Press, a FOX News Channel Web article called it "Ladies Night." (As opposed to when it's men's night most weeks.) In a recent New York Times column, Bill Keller named both Pelosi and DeLay as members that Congress would be better without. Fair enough, but consider his rationale. While Keller says that both Republicans and Democrats blame DeLay for turning the Capitol into a "snake pit" through dirty tactics, Pelosi's main sin is raising money for her colleagues. Yet isn't that one of the primary jobs of a party leader, particularly one trying to return her party to majority status? And when was the last time you saw a man criticized for fundraising too much?
Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman rightly pointed out in a recent column that the media aren't applying the same standards to Pelosi as they are to DeLay. She furthered an analogy that Pelosi used on Meet the Press, when the representative talked about how everyone "oohs and ahs" over her victory as the first female House leader -- then proceeds to carve her up. Pelosi's press coverage means she "will be down to the wishbone any day now," wrote Goodman, while DeLay "barely got a nick in his drumstick." Yet even Goodman's column didn't always play in Pelosi's favor thanks to editors around the country. In the Globe, the article was headlined, "Pick on DeLay, Not Pelosi." The Deseret News in Salt Lake City titled it, "Criticism Already Brewing for 'Latte Liberal' Pelosi."
Coverage of both Pelosi and DeLay could change in the coming months. As Al Hunt explained on CNN's The Capital Gang, if Republicans continue their "ad hominem attacks against her, [a] San Francisco, gay-loving liberal Democrat, it's going to be equal treatment for Tom DeLay, and we're going to find out some of his views are even more out of the mainstream than Nancy Pelosi's." But don't look for that to happen anytime soon. If the press is anything, it's predictable. For Nancy Pelosi, that means the public will get a healthy dose of her "liberal" views, making her job of returning the House Democrats to power more difficult (because the press gives the word "liberal" a negative connotation). Meanwhile, Tom DeLay's "conservative" positions will remain right where he has centered his political power: hidden in the background, away from the klieg lights and where they're apt to be the most dangerous.