The Power of Pelosi

The career of a modern US House speaker is becoming like that of an NFL running back: high-profile, punishing, and brief. One of the biggest surprises since the midterm elections is that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to forgo the dignified retirement widely expected after her party's historic trouncing.

Pelosi is one of the country's most polarizing figures. But despite this, she handily won reelection to the top Democratic leadership post, beating a token challenger, Heath Shuler of North Carolina. In doing so, she avoided -- or more likely, put off -- what appears to be the ineluctable fate of any House leader in the age of Fox News and MSNBC: to be subjected to such fierce and constant attacks that it becomes impossible to carry on.

This brutal treatment bears little correlation to how a speaker performs. Pelosi has been an uncommonly effective legislator, who already secured her place in history by winning the broad expansion of health care that eluded her many predecessors; and this was only the most prominent of the many important bills she pushed through that have made the 111th Congress the most accomplished in a generation.

Pelosi somewhat haughtily offers this record as the grounds for leading her diminished party forward, and one can understand her sense of entitlement. Until health care reform became law in March, she was seen primarily as a fundraiser with little strategic savvy, likely to be remembered only as the first woman speaker. And even her role as pioneering female politician was often eclipsed by Hillary Clinton.

How Pelosi confounded these assumptions is a testament to her abilities, but also helps to explain why she has become a drag on her party. Until the Republican landslide of 1994, speakers tended to defer to their committee chairmen, who were granted broad powers to shape legislation. But Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay upended that system, consolidating power among the top leadership and neutering chairmen.

When the Democrats took back the House in 2006 and made Pelosi speaker, she, too, consolidated power and often bypassed the committee system -- and more effectively than the Republicans had, as her legislative record attests. But just as DeLay and Gingrich eventually could not withstand partisan attacks, Pelosi has been thoroughly demonized. What she and her critics claim is not really in conflict: Republicans charge her with ignoring the minority and cutting backroom deals; she points to what she has gotten done by doing so.

Both claims are basically true. But what Pelosi has chosen to ignore is the steep electoral price of her unpopularity. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month put her overall approval rating at 29 percent (and an abysmal 8 percent among independents). No surprise, then, that she featured so prominently in the campaigns of the many Republicans who defeated Democratic congressmen. By contrast, Tip O'Neill, another Democratic speaker and Republican target, had approval ratings above 60 percent when he retired a generation ago.

It's hard to believe that Pelosi's unpopularity is purely a function of her conduct as speaker -- Tip O'Neill never had Fox News to deal with. But neither is it plausible to pretend that this new reality has no bearing on a party's fortunes.

Asked by a reporter whether she should be leading her caucus, Pelosi replied, "How would your ratings be if $75 million were spent against you?'' An accurate diagnosis, but entirely beside the point. As long as she remains their leader, Democrats will struggle to recover the seats needed to regain a majority. "Nancy Pelosi was the face that defeated 60-plus members,'' Democratic Representative Allen Boyd of Florida, one of the victims, complained last week.

Already, the next speaker, Republican John Boehner of Ohio, is under attack from Democrats. But this alone won't solve their problems. Having an all-powerful leader makes it hard for younger representatives to emerge. The presumptive speaker-in-waiting, Rahm Emanuel, left Congress for the White House and then gave up Washington entirely to run for mayor of Chicago.

Pelosi's second-in-command, the sepulchral Steny Hoyer of Maryland, quickly submitted to her will to continue. Consequently, many Democrats who would prefer another choice are stuck with Pelosi, even while being aware of the cost.

"She's like a Hall of Fame athlete who doesn't know when to retire,'' lamented one of them. "She can't leave, and we don't know what to do.'' Pelosi may be hurting her team, but she's proving impossible to bench.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.