When Congress convenes in January, a new phrase will enter the nation’s political lexicon: Madam Speaker. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the most demonized Democrat of this most nasty mid-term election, ascends to the most important office of the opposition party. Speaker of the House of Representatives. Third in line to the presidency. The highest-ranking woman in elective office in American history. As the father of daughters, I like it.
Americans will be forgiven if they have a less than flattering view of the incoming Democratic leader. During the campaign, mailboxes all over the country filled-up with Republican fliers, designed in Washington, advertising the fearful prospect of Pelosi as Speaker. Roy Blount, the GOP majority whip, ran a Web site calling the prospect of her speakership “just plain scary.”
Now that the election is over, here are a few things you should know about Pelosi.
She comes with strong political genes. Star reader John D. Short wrote me last week, “If anyone bothers to understand her background, it is pure and simple — powerful Catholic political roots in Baltimore, tough discipline, amazing accomplishment and hard-work success.” Short is right. Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Allesandro, was a four-term congressman and then mayor of Baltimore for 12 years. She married, moved to San Francisco, raised five children and then began her rise through the ranks of the California Democratic Party. Twenty years ago Pelosi was elected to Congress, rising in 2003 to the post of minority leader.
One important benchmark in reaching that position was the war in Iraq. When Dick Gephardt, then the Democratic leader, went to the Rose Garden to stand beside President Bush in support of the resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq, Pelosi bolted. She organized 126 Democratic votes against the resolution, while her boss, Gephardt, mustered only an embarrassing 81 in support of Bush. In the leadership job herself, Pelosi carefully and quietly worked behind the scenes with conservative Democratic Rep. John Murtha, a veteran who supported the war, to prepare his very public turn-around on Iraq.
Tuesday’s results added a number of new, socially conservative members to Democratic ranks, raising questions of what this means for Pelosi’s leadership. But her record on that is clear. Pelosi has led from the center of her caucus, not the left. Using rewards and strong discipline, she has achieved a striking 88 percent record of Democrats voting along party lines, the most unified caucus in 50 years. “You don’t get to freelance,” says Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor. Among other things, that meant that Pelosi was able to block Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, arguing that his plan would cost seniors but benefit Wall Street.
Pelosi promises to help restore ethical behavior to Congress. As Speaker Dennis Hastert used his leadership to protect Tom DeLay, Mark Foley and others involved in ethical scrapes, Minority Leader Pelosi took the opposite course. When Louisiana Congressman Bill Jefferson was caught accepting a $100,000 bribe, she immediately had him removed from the influential Ways and Means Committee.
At the top of Speaker Pelosi’s domestic agenda will be raising the minimum wage, a ballot proposition that carried in six states Tuesday. Other items on her agenda for the first 100 hours of the next Congress will include allowing the government to negotiate directly with drug companies to get lower prices for seniors, repeal of corporate tax incentives that lead to jobs moving overseas, making college tuition tax deductible, and implementing all the recommendations of the 9/11 commission.
Nancy Pelosi knows that the election that led to her speakership was essentially a referendum on the war in Iraq and the leadership of President Bush. During the campaign, the Democrats had no unified position on Iraq, though Pelosi herself promised to work for a phased withdrawal of troops to be completed by the end of 2007.
There may now be a real opportunity for a change of course on Iraq. A chastened Bush has acknowledged a “thumpin’ ” at the polls and removed Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon. In a few days, recommendations from the Jim Baker-Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group will be made public. Their report was scrupulously kept under wraps during the campaign, thus did not become a partisan political football. As the voice of the new House majority, Madam Speaker will have a well-earned role in the debate over what happens next in Iraq.