Tough Woman

The Indispensible Nancy Pelosi

Republicans turned the Democrats’ leader in the House into the prime reason to keep a Florida district in GOP hands. No wonder they fear her: she’s as responsible for liberal success in Washington as President Obama has been.

As the dust settled after the low turnout special election that saw a normally Republican district narrowly send a Republican to Congress, the National Journal credulously reported the claims of GOP strategists to a "first of its kind" database they called "Honeybadger." What a felicitous choice of words: was it a coincidence that the Democratic opponent was a woman?

So was the real target of this GOP "breakthrough," which itself was explained only in vague and formulaic terms. We were told that it was Nancy Pelosi, the prospect of Speaker Pelosi, and not Obamacare or Obama, that most drove the thin winning margin of Republican voters to the polls.

There is good reason to think that the apparition of this technology and the targeting of Pelosi are not much more than a classic case of spin. The National Republican Congressional Committee’s digital director dubiously boasted that Honeybadger has closed the digital divide with Democrats, who “oversold” their data technology in the first place.

We’ve heard something like this before from the GOP. Previewing election day 2012 on the PBS “NewsHour,” a confident Romney campaign revealed their “killer app” to monitor and power get—out—the—vote operations. What Obama had, Romney’s communications director said, was “nothing compared to this.” Well, that proved to be true—in reverse. The killer app, code-named Orca, transmogrified into a beached whale on election day.

Why would the GOP nomenklatura reveal their new secret sauce instead of saving it up for November—unless they’re actually just serving up a contrived attack on Pelosi? But there is also an underlying truth here. Pelosi has richly earned the animus of conservatives— and she should command the admiration of Democrats and progressives—for her singular effectiveness as Speaker, and since 2010, as leader of the House Democratic minority.

To begin with, she almost had to reinvent the Speaker’s role. The best of her predecessors—for example, Tom Foley—could and did forge bipartisan agreement. Thus Foley massaged a deal with the first George Bush to unsay his 1988 pledge: “Read my lips- no new taxes.” The resulting compromise raised taxes—and, combined with Bill Clinton’s 1993 economic package, led by the latter part of the decade to the elimination of federal deficits and the once-in-a-generation realization of balanced budgets, a stunning outcome which would soon be undone by the second Bush.

But after Pelosi took the gavel, and once Obama took the oath of office, there was almost no way, on most major issues, to strike a bargain with the other side. GOP members resisted anything and everything, even the kind of health care reform which they had proposed in the 1990s and Mitt Romney had enacted in Massachusetts.

Only when threatened by the political strychnine of a government shutdown or default on the national debt are Republicans willing to let that cup pass from them—and essential legislation pass into law.

So Pelosi had to find her own path to progress—and she did. As Speaker, she not only cajoled her majority into approving the Senate version of Obamacare without amendments—a disagreeable and nearly unprecedented concession from her own members and the only maneuver that could rescue the bill. She was also a critical, perhaps indispensable force in the decision to push the reform instead of backing off after Scott Brown won a momentary spell as Ted Kennedy’s successor in the Senate. Top advisers in the White House counseled retreat; she bluntly dismissed the idea. And the President took Pelosi’s way, not the highway of craven calculation.

Earlier, she had held virtually every Democrat in line, all but 11 of her majority, to pass the 2009 Economic Recovery Act without a single Republican vote. The GOP demonized the legislation—for the wrong reason: it wasn’t as big as it should have been—but it did prevent a second Great Depression.

And it was the most that could squeak through a filibuster- hobbled Senate. Pelosi played a similar, pivotal role on Wall Street reform and college loan changes to help students rather than subsidizing banks.

In the summer of 2010, she improbably asserted that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would be repealed by the end of the year. She had persistently sought an end to discrimination against gays in the military—and it happened, just as she had predicted, at the end of 2010, in a Congress which showed that a lame duck could cross the finish line.

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After the midterm defeat that year, John Boehner conducted his own reinvention of the Speakership. He inverted the Pelosi model. To him, the purpose of holding power was to hold onto it by doing nothing other than casting symbolic votes to undo the changes Obama and Pelosi had wrought. In response, she has led Democrats to fight back day after day and hold the GOP accountable—on immigration reform, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage. Alongside Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, she marshaled Democrats to back the President’s position on increasing the debt ceiling—a clean bill with no GOP shibboleths attached. A riven Republican caucus gave in—and the increase was enacted with the overwhelming support of Pelosi’s Democrats, and a minority of the Republican majority.

Pelosi doesn’t give up or give in. In a tough political season, in the face of a bleak Beltway consensus about Democratic prospects in 2014, she constantly rallies her troops and party donors. With her House campaign chair, Representative Steve Israel, she has raised a prodigious amount of money—and out raised House Republicans consistently. The $75 million brought in last year was a record.

And despite warnings that donors were about to shift to endangered Senate races, Pelosi’s Democrats financially outpaced their GOP counterparts in January with an influx of grassroots—and then did it again in February.

Republicans have the Koch brothers and the super PACs. In the endless money chase that marks and mars our politics, Democrats need more of the same thing—and as much help as possible from Obama’s vaunted organization. And they are lucky to have Pelosi, who will be planning, prodding, raising money, raising issues, and raising party spirits until the last vote is cast and counted.

No wonder Republicans labor and leak to diminish her. They so fiercely dislike her that in the end they may trick themselves into thinking they can Honeybadger her to a GOP midterm victory.

Barack Obama’s great domestic accomplishments are also Nancy Pelosi’s. And now she’s pushing ahead, against the prevailing winds and wisdom, to pick up congressional seats—and against history itself to take back the House. Yes, the odds are against her. But she has performed political miracles before. And maybe, just maybe, she can pull one off this year.