At one point during the 2018 cycle, I wrote that House Democrats would probably be better off with a leader who wasn’t Nancy Pelosi, because sometimes presenting a fresh face to the voters is a good idea.
Someone on her staff called to scold for me being sexist, saying something along the lines of “I’d watch what you say about a woman’s face.”
I think I was pretty clearly employing a widely used metaphor that has nothing to do with gender or anyone’s actual face (take a look at these old Politico headlines like “Maine Gov. LePage: GOP should pick 'fresh face' in Tampa” from 2012 or “Walker jabs at Bush, calls for a ‘fresh’ GOP face” from 2016). It’s just a fact of political life that it is often beneficial to put forward a relative newcomer rather than someone who’s been subject to years of attacks or who has amassed the inevitable track record of mistakes. I refused to apologize and never heard much again from Pelosi’s comms people. And I’ve always found that regrettable because even though I really do think that it would have improved Democrats’ electoral performance to have swapped leaders sooner, I also think Pelosi was an incredible political tactician and strategist and one of the greatest congressional leaders of all time.
With her now retiring from leadership, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the now-underappreciated moments from earlier in her career.
A lot of people arguing about politics these days are younger than I am and don’t have much political memory before the mid-Obama years. But even though Pelosi did good stuff in the later years of her leadership, I think most of her finest hours came quite a bit earlier — as Ranking Member of the Intelligence Committee, during her brief tenure as Minority Whip, and during her first six years as the top House Democrat. And that all starts with the context that before Pelosi was a veteran leader, she was essentially a progressive factional figure.
The progressive leader
The leader represents the caucus, so Pelosi’s politics over the past 18 years have been the politics of Democratic Party consensus, with some shading toward the imperative to cover the flank of the most vulnerable members.
That makes her a bit of an anomaly representing (until this past redistricting) basically the city of San Francisco in Congress. The old pre-2021 version of her district had the second-highest share of people who self-identify as liberal in the country, following only Pramila Jayapal’s district in central Seattle. Given that district, it’s not a surprise that Jayapal is the leader of the Progressive Caucus, and it feels a bit odd that Pelosi is as moderate as she is.
But that’s a function of leadership.
For Pelosi’s first 15 years, she was a factional progressive in Congress. When Bill Clinton laid out his health care proposal in 1993, Pelosi was the one who anchored the left flank of the debate with a Medicare for All proposal. When she became the #2 figure in the leadership hierarchy in 2002, she was the progressive voice in the councils of leadership. Prior to assuming that role, she was the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, which made her one of the most prominent congressional Democrats to buck the Bush administration on the invasion of Iraq.
By the numbers, most Democrats in Congress voted “no” on the war. But the prominent ones like John Kerry and John Edwards who were running for president, Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Joe Biden, future candidate Hillary Clinton, Senate leader Tom Daschle, and House leader Dick Gephardt all voted for the war. It was Pelosi who said, no, I’m on the committee, I’ve seen the intelligence, and the case doesn’t add up. And she was right. There’s more to politics than being right about stuff, but being right is a major asset — whatever else happened over the course of Clinton’s career, I think it’s clear that she’d have been elected president back in 2008 if she’d been as correct about this as Pelosi was.
When Gephardt stepped down to pursue his presidential ambitions and Pelosi stepped up, the main media narrative was that the Democrats were going off the rails to the left. Instead, we had several years of progressives being right about stuff and Pelosi triumphing.
Leader of the opposition
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was an emotional gut punch for lots of people I know. And it was unquestionably a surprise to me, thanks to the polling. But the time that I felt was actually the moment of maximum peril for projects that I care about was George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004.
There are a few reasons for this. One is that Bush won a majority of the vote fair and square — Democrats’ critiques had, in fact, been rejected by the public and the people were not secretly on my side. Another is that given the political coalitions that prevailed in the mid-aughts, the GOP dominated campaign fundraising and enjoyed the more or less overt support of the bulk of corporate America. Today, Democrats’ advantage among the mass affluent tends to mean they win in hard-dollar candidate fundraising, even if Republicans equalize it with huge checks from billionaires. And while top corporate executives tend to like Republicans, their partisanship is tempered by attention to the views of a generally liberal-leaning white-collar workforce. Bush had a lot more clout behind him.
Bush also had what appeared to be a large and politically potent evangelical church serving as a mass social movement in his favor. This ultimately proved to be a bit of an illusion — public opinion on same-sex marriage shifted rapidly and church attendance collapsed, while education polarization greatly leveled the financial playing field. But at the time, it really felt like Bush held a dominant political hand and planned to wield it to privatize Social Security.
“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital,” Bush said in his post-election press conference, “and I intend to spend it.”
You can’t alter Social Security in a reconciliation bill, so Republicans were going to need Democratic votes. But Bush got Democratic votes for his war and for his two rounds of tax cuts, so the conventional wisdom was he would get them on Social Security. That started with a media chorus demanding that Democrats put forward their own proposal for changing Social Security to serve as a basis for negotiation. And it was Pelosi who devised the winning strategy — do nothing:
As the spring of 2005 wore on, some pestered her every week, asking when they were going to release a rival plan.
“Never. Is never good enough for you?” Pelosi defiantly said to one member.
The privatization plan went down in flames and Bush’s presidency never recovered.
Having injected some progressive spine into the caucus and defeated Bush, Pelosi set about to win a majority. That meant transcending her progressive roots and working with the more moderate Rahm Emanuel to recruit a bunch of centrist candidates to run in tough districts. They ran this play in both the 2006 and 2008 cycles, and it involved running lots of people who were way more conservative than Jared Golden is today. It also generated majorities that were much larger than the ones Democrats enjoyed in the 117th Congress.
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