May 14, 2004
Meyerson on Pelosi
In next month’s TAP:
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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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