Nancy Pelosi won't back down

Loss? What loss? The House leader is still talking tough—and promising a fight

She won't back down

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times; Jim Young/Reuters

Out of the primordial ooze of post-election political recrimination and power struggle, a new Washington landscape is beginning to emerge. It is populated by a diminished President facing, to his right, a restless herd of Republican opposition whose internal power structure is still evolving, and to his right, a shrunken and defensive Democratic caucus that is determined to carry on as if the election had not really happened.

In recent years, when a party lost control of the House of Representatives, the leader stepped aside to make room for a new face and a new direction. House Speaker Newt Gingrich quit after Republicans lost seats in 1998, and Dennis Hastert quit after losing the House in 2006. But not outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The 70-year-old grandmother of seven and godmother of Barack Obama’s major legislative accomplishments—from the stimulus bill to health care reform—surprised many in Washington by staying put as leader of the Democratic minority in the House.

Eight days after the election, in which Democrats lost 63 House seats and six in the Senate, Pelosi was not mourning. Instead, she threw a party—a closed-door reception “honouring the achievements of the 111th Congress.” Never mind that her national approval rating may have fallen below 25 per cent and Republicans and their allies had run US$54 million worth of television ads against her during the campaign, making Pelosi, and not the local candidate, the issue in some races. Arriving at the grand caucus room of the marbled Cannon Office Building, she made it clear where she stood: a perfectly tailored and meticulously groomed picture of plum-clad defiance. Judging by the waves of applause that emanated from behind the tall carved doors, she was not apologizing.

In contrast, Obama emerged from the elections gripped by his own internal debate over the meaning of the results. Were they a wholesale repudiation of Democratic policies? Or a failure by the White House to communicate them properly? Or inevitable in a weak economy? He described his soul-searching in a post-election press conference. “I’m doing a whole lot of reflecting and I think that there are going to be areas in policy where we’re going to have to do a better job,” he said. He blamed himself for failing to communicate that bailout policies for banks and automakers and the stimulus package were responses to emergency situations and not a personal agenda. “We thought it was necessary, but I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach,” he said. And he didn’t let himself off the hook for the economy, either: “I think I’ve got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.” On Democrats who lost their seats, he said, “There’s also a lot of questioning on my part in terms of, could I have done something differently or done something more so that those folks would still be here.”

Pelosi’s post-election reflection was simpler. “We did not lose the election because of me,” she told National Public Radio. “In any circumstance when you have 9½ per cent unemployment, any party that cannot turn that into political gain should hang up the gloves.” Still, her decision to remain leader into the second half of Obama’s term has many consequences. Moderate Democrats in the House worry that she is so politically toxic that she will not only doom Democratic chances to pick up more seats in 2012, but make it difficult to recruit candidates. Heath Shuler, a pro-life and pro-gun Democratic congressman from North Carolina who challenged her for the position of minority leader in the new House, called her candidacy “unacceptable.”

Republicans, of course, are thrilled. During the campaign, the Republican National Committee hung a “Fire Pelosi” sign outside their headquarters. After the election, they changed it to “Hire Pelosi.” “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters. “Of course, if House Democrats are willing to sacrifice more of their members in 2012 for the glory of Nancy Pelosi, we are happy to oblige them.” Pelosi was re-elected leader on Nov. 17 on a vote of 150 to 43.

There is no doubt that Pelosi has been a very effective Speaker, pushing through a wide legislative agenda. “I don’t think you can look back over Speakers of the last 20 or 30 years and point to anyone who had as many accomplishments as Speaker Pelosi was able to deliver,” said Sean Gibbons, a spokesman for the Third Way, a moderate think tank. “I think she has been extraordinarily effective at finding common ground within her caucus, and very, very politically savvy.” Pelosi knew how to count votes. She was able to pass a House bill on health care, but also one on the greenhouse gas reduction measure known as cap and trade, in which she gave members from swing districts a pass on voting once she had enough votes to get the bill through. In contrast, the Senate was not able to pass a climate bill.

Pelosi may be the Armani-clad wife of a millionaire, and typecast as a leftish San Francisco liberal, but she grew up steeped in retail politics in Baltimore, where her father was mayor. She embodies the notion that a woman can “have it all—just not all at once.” She didn’t run for office until her fifth child was a senior in high school, and became Speaker of the House once she was a grandmother. Yet she plays the game as hard, if not harder, than the men. “People think she’s from San Francisco. She’s an Italian-American Baltimore Democrat. This is street politics—that’s how she plays it,” says Richard Wolffe, author of Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, a new book for which he was granted insider access at the White House during tough negotiations over a final health care bill between Pelosi, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and Obama. “Yes, she’s incredibly loyal to her team, her party, her caucus, and she wants them to win. And she has a tremendous sense of what each member needs and desires—a granular sense of the motives of other people,”

“[Joe] Biden jokes about Obama having a spine of steel—but Pelosi seems to have anthracite in her,” says Wolffe. There were two changes in the Senate bill that Pelosi did not want to agree to: a proposal to tax high-cost health insurance plans that was opposed by labour unions, whose members benefited from such plans, and the Senate’s desire to cut down the overall cost of the plan from the House version that would cost more than a trillion dollars over 10 years. Pelosi dug in her heels. “Senate Democrats were compromising and halving the difference—she literally would not offer up anything. She said she would not budge,” said Wolffe. “She has a volcanic temper and deployed it against the President and against Harry Reid,” he said.

From Pelosi’s point of view, she and her caucus had taken the tough votes, done the heavy lifting, and would not be pushed around by a few holdout senators and a compromising White House. But her hardline stance was seen by the White House as dragging out something that could have been wrapped up before the Jan. 20 election in Massachusetts. That vote saw the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat go to Republicans, thereby ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority, and dragging the bloody health care process out by several more months. “For many people in the room it wasn’t about principle—it was about being pushed around, about her not trusting the Senate and the President, being tough for her own caucus,” said Wolffe. “You can make the case that she weakened everyone—she hurt the President, she hurt the Democrats, she hurt health care.”

Now, Pelosi says she will try to defend those hard-won gains against Republican attempts to roll them back. “That’s one of the reasons I ran for leader—to fight any changes. Any undermining of the health care bill, of the Wall Street reform bill, of the consumer protection bill—I’ll fight that,” she told the New York Times magazine.

And while Pelosi digs in, Republicans are feeling their way through how far to move to the right, given that their caucus will now include several high-profile members brought in on the enthusiasm of the Tea Party. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner has said he knows he is “on probation” by conservative voters. He has pledged to “not disappoint” his Tea Party supporters who elected Republicans on promises of major spending cuts. He has said that as Speaker he will not use the military plane that Pelosi had used to ferry her non-stop from Washington to her district in San Francisco and back. (But his display of humility was quickly undermined: while Americans raged over new “enhanced screening” provisions at airports that resulted in scanning machines and more intimate pat-down searches, Boehner made headlines by being whisked around the security checkpoint at Washington’s Reagan National Airport.)

So far, the Tea Partiers are flexing their muscles and getting their way. In the Senate, minority leader Mitch McConnell, a long-serving Republican from Kentucky, caved to conservative pressure and did an about-face to agree to a ban on earmarks—the special funding requests that lawmakers attach to bills to benefit their personal districts and pet projects. Coming from a politician who had repeatedly defended earmarks and prided himself on bringing home millions of dollars of such pork-barrel spending for his home state, “This was the political equivalent of a right-handed pitcher cutting off his right arm,” wrote his hometown paper, the Courier-Journal of Louisville.

Obama, who wanted reform of the earmarks system, welcomed the change of heart. But other Republican senators who spent the past two years trying to prevent Obama from any legislative achievements show no sign of compromising with the White House. In foreign affairs, senior Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, a respected leader in foreign affairs and arms control, has been pushing the Senate to ratify a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. The White House expected the treaty to come to a vote before the end of the year, but another Republican senator, Jon Kyl of Arizona, surprised the White House by announcing there was not enough time to deal with the treaty until after the new Congress is sworn in. The move, backed by some conservatives who consider the treaty inadequate, led Obama to the humiliation of an unscheduled private meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the Lisbon NATO summit to explain his failure to pass the treaty.

As the Republican positions show no sign of thawing, the White House may not be thrilled that Pelosi stayed on, but her hardline stance in the House may be politically useful for a President who ran on a campaign promise of overcoming partisan rancor and uniting red and blue America. “Now they can say Pelosi is here on the left doing her job, and Boehner is on the right looking after the Tea Party, and the President is the only grown-up in the room,” said Wolffe.

Obama has sounded an optimistic note, saying bilateral co-operation is possible on areas such as defence, energy policy, science education and extending middle-class tax cuts, scheduled to expire at the end of December. “I suspect that if you talk to any individual voter yesterday, they’d say, ‘there are some things I agree with Democrats on, there are some things I agree with Republicans on,’ ” he explained at his post-election press conference. “I don’t think people carry around with them a fixed ideology.”

As a starting point, he pointed to a bipartisan commission he appointed to come up with a package of spending cuts and tax increases that would reduce the budget. The panel’s chairmen have made wide-ranging recommendations, including ending certain tax deductions, cutting Social Security benefits, and raising the retirement age. After Pelosi finished hostess duties at her party, she was whisked past a phalanx of television cameras and reporters shouting questions about her response to the commission. Her views came later in a statement. “This proposal,” wrote Pelosi, “is simply unacceptable.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.