Pelosi's Moment

Last night's Democratic triumph may have saved Barack Obama's presidency, but it's Nancy Pelosi's moment right now. Glowing profiles of her appeared in The New York Times and Politico, even before the vote. History will remember her as the Speaker who ushered in this era's landmark social reform, and did so against great odds. And yet for all that, she's an enigmatic figure.
The excitement that suffused Democratic Washington a few days ago came on so suddenly, I believe, in part because so few people thought her capable of doing what she's just done. Her potential as a historic figure always seemed likely to be limited to gender--to being the first woman Speaker--rather than to any legislative accomplishment. Pelosi has never been beloved by her caucus or credited with strategic savvy. And anyone inclined to write about gender and politics always had Hillary Clinton. There have dozens of serious magazine profiles of Clinton over the years (including mine, here and here); but I can't recall a single major Pelosi profile. I'll bet that changes in a hurry.

In 2005, I wrote a short, fairly negative profile of Pelosi and Harry Reid called "The Odd Couple." My contention was that Democrats, then at their Bush-era nadir, needed revolutionaries to lead a comeback, and that Pelosi and Reid, ineffectual party lifers, didn't fit the bill. ("The vapid response team," Charlie Cook dubbed them in my piece.) "Both apprenticed as whip," I wrote, "a job that requires corralling and cajoling fellow congressmen to support the party line." I thought they lacked the salesmanship to rally the broader public behind the Democratic agenda.
In hindsight, my mistake is clear. I made the common media error of placing too much weight on public relations, and too little on legislative skill. Obama took care of the salesmanship, and Pelosi's underappreciated experience as whip has proved instrumental to her success. The interesting thing now is understanding how she's operated in Congress.
As it happens, I got a pretty good glimpse through the eyes of someone who knows. Last year, I helped Henry Waxman write a book about Congress, " The Waxman Report." One of the book's themes is how Congress has changed since 1975, when Waxman arrived as a "Watergate Baby." Back then, power emanated from the bottom up. Subcommittees, where Republicans and Democrats routinely worked together (!!!) to craft legislation, held great sway. Committee chairmen tended to defer to their expertise. The Speaker rarely overruled subcommittee chairmen. This system ended when Republicans took over Congress in 1994. Power began to emanate from the top down, as figures like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay consolidated their control.
A lot changed after Democrats retook Congress four years ago. But one thing that didn't change is the nature of how power is wielded. Pelosi operates in the same top-down manner as her Republican predecessors. This is a frequent Republican complaint that is ignored because of the hypocrisy of who is complaining. But the analysis is correct. One can argue about whether or not this is a pernicious development--Waxman, without citing Pelosi, thinks that it is; I'm a bit more ambivalent. But it's the key to understanding Pelosi's legislative style. When old bulls like John Dingell threatened climate legislation, Pelosi didn't hesitate to sideline them and concentrate power among a handful of lieutenants, including Waxman, which resulted in her passing a cap-and-trade bill. Likewise, on health care, Pelosi directed the effort to revive and pass a Senate bill that was unpalatable to much of her caucus and seemed dead just weeks ago. In doing so, she's established her legacy.
Five years ago, I wrote:

History suggests that the most effective opposition leaders--Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Lyndon Johnson--tend to be bullies who relish pool-cue-to-the-knee politics and boast tough-guy nicknames like DeLay's "The Hammer."

Pelosi didn't strike me as an effective opposition leader, and I wouldn't have imagined that she'd be an effective Speaker. But she's adapted handily to the way Congress operates today. It isn't always pretty and it doesn't resemble the bipartisan days of yore. But after last night's vote, it's much harder to argue that it can't be effective. And it's impossible to argue that Pelosi herself can't be either.

Thumbnail photo credit: Yuri Gripas/Getty Images

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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