Pelosi executed a strategy to shape public sentiment immediately after President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, when Republicans expanded their majority by three seats. Bush was pushing for a politically risky overhaul of Social Security. Members of her caucus and outside advocacy groups pressured Pelosi to propose alternative policies. But Pelosi knew that once Democrats offered a solution, they would give Republicans something to attack rather than defend. For nearly two years, Republicans watched their favorability ratings fall, dragged down by a spate of scandals and the unpopular war in Iraq. Only a few months before the midterm election, Pelosi and the House Democratic Caucus rolled out “6 for ’06,” the legislative priorities they would pass if in the majority. Naturally, Republicans took an offensive posture, but by then it was too late. Public sentiment had ripened for a Democratic legislative agenda, the party gained 32 seats in the House, and Pelosi became speaker. Then she mobilized her majority to pass those very priorities. Two years later, in 2008, the electorate rewarded Democrats with an even larger majority. Timing was everything.
On a more mundane level, I caught Pelosi’s ire when I forgot the Lincoln mantra. It was May 2003, only two years into my 16-year tenure representing a fairly competitive district on Long Island, New York. When Republicans offered a new package of tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest, I indicated to the Democratic whip’s office that I was undecided. A few days before the vote, Pelosi hunted me down on the House floor and asked why I couldn’t oppose the measure. When I told her that many of my constituents favored it, she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Well, educate them.”
Pelosi’s sensitivity to public sentiment requires her to keep tabs on three fronts.
The first is the Democratic caucus. She constantly monitors and measures the mood of her colleagues. She rotates through her office the House Democratic leadership, a wider leadership group called the Steering and Policy Committee, the chairs of various legislative committees, and the leaders and members of dozens of disparate caucuses (the Congressional Black Caucus and the conservative Blue Dogs, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the moderate New Democratic Caucus). Then she goes to ground, conferring with members one-on-one. Not everyone knows what everyone else is thinking. She and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer do. It’s how they shape consensus.
Pelosi tells her caucus, “Our diversity is our strength; our unity is our power.”
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The second is the congressional electorate, which determines which party controls the House. Sure, Pelosi has institutional responsibilities. Yes, she must reflect the progressive values and priorities of the Democratic Party. But she also has a responsibility to keep Democrats in the majority, so that they can fight effectively for those values and priorities. She’s got to win elections.