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Pelosi's sharp elbows

Guest Blogger

Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, has shown remarkable agility in leading a chamber of belligerent, stubborn, sometimes foul-mouthed, mostly male colleagues. How does she do it? Ronald M. Peters Jr. and Cindy Simon Rosenthal explore this question in depth in their new book, “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics,” published by Oxford University Press. What they find is that she understands how to wage intraparty war and how to win at all costs.

By Ronald M. Peters Jr. and Cindy Simon Rosenthal

After Congress passed health care reform, many participants credited the crucial role of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in pushing a comprehensive bill and its sidecar adjustments through the House by narrow margins. This was but the most recent in a string of legislative victories credited to Pelosi’s account. How does she do it?

The key lies in two qualities of her character: a passion for loyalty and a drive to win.

As for loyalty, her memory for favors granted and slights incurred is legendary. Pelosi avidly builds and maintains relationships across the spectrum of her activities: candidate recruitment, fundraising, administrative preferment, legislation.

When crossed, she works to move her opponents aside. John Dingell has been on the receiving end. When he sought to defeat her bid to become Democratic whip in 2000, she launched an eight-year effort to displace him as the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee. After turning back Martin Frost’s challenge to her bid to become Democratic floor leader in 2002, she opposed his effort to become chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2004.

In Pelosi’s view intraparty leadership races run parallel to the competition between the two parties. In each case, one side (hers) is pitted against the other side (theirs) and the goal is to win. She does pay a price for her combative instincts. After the 2006 elections, she supported John Murtha’s abortive bid to displace Steny Hoyer as floor leader -- a move regarded as a major stumble. At the same time, her harsh attacks on Republicans have contributed to the partisan environment and to her relatively poor approval ratings.

Pelosi’s philosophy guides her approach to legislation as well. Once she has made up her mind to win, she does not intend to lose. To win votes, she typically seeks compromise within the Democratic caucus, knowing that there will be little or no support from the other side.

Her approach requires her to build rather than burn bridges. Even as she pushes her Democratic opponents aside, she seeks to restore relationships. She has a good working relationship with Hoyer. Although she successfully arranged for John Larson to oppose Joe Crowley -- a Hoyer supporter -- as caucus vice-chair in 2002, she has readmitted Crowley to the leadership fold. And Dingell was given authorship of the health-care legislation -- an issue of long importance to him. In September 2006, Pelosi took time from the most important election campaign of her career to attend memorial services for the wife of her former opponent Martin Frost.

For Pelosi, politics among friends is always personal, while politics against adversaries is never personal. In her recently published book, Laura Bush takes Pelosi to task for launching harsh rhetorical attacks against her husband, and then attending White House functions as if she had used a gentler tone. To Pelosi, George W. Bush was a political adversary who was fair game for partisan attack. But it was never personal. Her Democratic competitors were her friends, to be defeated and then embraced. It was always personal. This is Nancy Pelosi’s way.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  May 27, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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Posted by: kirkbull | May 27, 2010 5:43 AM | Report abuse

Are you sure your name is not Louise Slaughter? Because you are kissing as far and as hard as she did for her bud, the lady who gave us the ever expanding health care bill.

Posted by: zendrell | May 27, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

A very discouraging, but probably accurate, take on the Speaker.

Her concern is "winning" short term political victories, not promoting the long term health of the nation.

Posted by: coastofutopia | May 27, 2010 1:08 PM | Report abuse

A strong Speaker (or Senate Majority Leader) in today's political environment will always be detested by the opposing side, D, I, R or T. I hear the complaints constantly from my conservative family and friends just as I heard them from my liberal f&f earlier. Strength seems to mean partisanship and ideological purity.

Q. Is strength through compromise and collegiality dead? Will there be another Speaker or Senate Majority Leader who can work all sides of the aisle? The constant swinging of the pendulum back and forth between harsh conservative and harsh liberal ideologies is tiresome. I long for the day when moderation in tone, tenor and ideology becomes the model for American politics. I hope that our politicians will accept someday that they can't get everything they want to make progress. I will not hold my breath.

Posted by: mraymond10 | May 27, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

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