Nancy Pelosi reached for one of the Ghirardelli chocolates from the bowl that is always nearby on the table, explaining as she unwrapped the confection that the peppermint would help erase the bitter pill of the debt-ceiling deal Congress had just passed. “It's a bad deal, but it’s a done deal,” she said.
Now the Democratic leader in the House wants to talk about what should happen next.
Pelosi agrees that the Republicans won in Congress by framing the debate over raising the nation’s borrowing limit around the idea that the debt is everything. “But they didn’t win it with the American people,” she says. “I haven’t seen a poll yet that says, ‘Don’t tax the rich, we don’t want jobs, we just want to deal with this debt first, second, last, and always.’”
Stung by the outcome in Congress, Democrats are portraying the Tea Party as reckless extremists bent on destroying government. "If it was about the deficit, we can deal with it," Pelosi said Wednesday during a gathering with reporters in her office. "This is about destroying the public space.” Everything from clean air and water to national parks and food safety and regulation will be compromised if the Tea Party gets the draconian cuts it wants. Saying this is a “fragile ecosystem” that we have, Pelosi personalized what’s at stake, saying, "I'm a mom and a grandmother talking now. Don’t mess with that.”
She recalled that when her children, all five of them, were little, there were endless arguments over who did what to whom, or whose foot was leaning against whose knee in the car. But when they headed out of the city and over one of the San Francisco bridges, “We had a family thing—throw it over the bridge.”
Pelosi wants to jettison the debt debate the same way. “So let’s just go to the next place,” she said. “Every day we talk about this [debt] and we’re not talking about jobs, it plays right into the hand of the Republicans.”
The handful of reporters assembled in Pelosi’s office weren’t quite ready to move on and pressed her on the congressional supercommittee that will be appointed within the next two weeks to find another couple of trillion dollars in savings. Saying she had “no intention of contributing to the cottage industry” of speculation over who the 12 members would be, Pelosi did pledge that the three lawmakers she gets to name will insist on a jobs component in whatever is decided.
If there is no agreement by the deadline in late November, Republicans would give up $50 billion in defense spending, and Democrats would have equal exposure in the programs they most care about.
“So I can take the temperature down, take a deep breath, and make sure that people know what is at stake," she said. Having had five older brothers growing up, Pelosi knows how the game is played in the male-dominated House of Representatives. She recalled her first football game and wondering why, when someone was tackled, he got cheered. “Because he ran 30 yards,” she was told. “People have to know what the plays are here,” she said.
The default crisis play that has triggered so much disgust among Americans was engineered, in her view, by the Tea Party–backed Republicans, and has nothing to do with reducing the deficit. It is about shrinking government, or, in Pelosi’s view, destroying government.
“You’ve got to give them credit, they vote what they believe. They’re true to their beliefs, and we’ve got to make sure the public sees it.”
“I think anyone who thinks the president is naive is naive.”
Pelosi delivered half the Democratic caucus for a bill that she said maybe 10 members wanted to vote for. She said she found it “appalling” that President Obama, alone among presidents, was subjected to the notion that any rise in the debt ceiling must be accompanied by a dollar-for-dollar reduction in spending.
Asked whether, if in February 2013 there is a President Rick Perry and she is speaker of a new Democratic majority, she would see this deal as setting a precedent, Pelosi was succinct.
“No,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Pelosi is committed to protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but doesn’t sound as doctrinaire on entitlements as she’s been portrayed. She said the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission and the “Gang of Six” in the Senate are “far better than what I call the deficit hell that we’re going to be taken to here” if the Tea Party has its way. Each group included new revenues in its calculations.
When a reporter asked if the president was “naive” in thinking he could negotiate a deal with Speaker John Boehner that included new tax revenue, Pelosi responded sharply, “I think anyone who thinks the president is naive is naive,” she said, calling Obama “our champion at the table,” and dismissing the notion that he may have “muddied” the issue for Democrats by indicating he was open to entitlement reform.
Obama yielded far more substantive ground than the Republicans, but the upside politically is that there will be no blurring of the lines between the two parties going into an election year.
The voters will have a real choice between two very different visions of government and its role. For Democrats, if anything constructive came out of this contentious debate, other than averting default, it is the fact that the Tea Party set the agenda, and that what its members have in mind may not be what the voters expected when they elected them.