Is Nancy Pelosi the answer to the Democrats‘ problems? Forgive me for having a few doubts.
Certainly, it’s long past the time when one of the two major parties should have placed a woman in a position of real political power — and by choosing Pelosi as their new leader, House Democrats have punched a hole in the glass ceiling which many other democracies around the world have already punctured. But is that enough?
There‘s precious little room left for legislative maneuvering by the minority party, especially under the more draconian rules in the House, where Tom DeLay enforces an iron control over what is permitted to come to the floor for a vote. This means — after a midterm congressional campaign in which the Democrats lost by serving up a themeless porridge of accommodationist me-tooisms — that what the party needs more than anything else is a “great communicator” in its House leader (as The New York Times editorialized the other day). And, of course, one with a solid alternative message to communicate.
Pelosi, however, has long been plagued by reservations about her intellectual capacities. She’s a dogged inside player whose canny climb up the pole of politics has been greased by money — but she‘s never been known as a policy innovator and has only a slim record of legislative accomplishment. Moreover, despite an effective White House campaign to portray her as a “left-wing San Francisco Democrat,” Pelosi’s progressivism often seems more rooted in circumstance than in deep conviction.
Unlike Paul Wellstone, who had an organic connection to the issue-oriented citizen activism whence he came, Pelosi‘s career is a classic example of checkbook politics. She married money — her husband, Paul, is a former banker who became a wealthy real estate developer — and the Pelosi fortune makes her the richest member of California’s House delegation. Her political largesse and fund-raising skills brought her to the attention of the late Congressman Phil Burton, a powerhouse of a man who took her under his wing and guided her ascendance to chair the California Democratic Party. She lost a campaign for Democratic national chairman, but — after serving as fund-raising chair for the Democrats‘ 1986 U.S. Senate campaign — Pelosi was tapped by Phil Burton’s brother John to take over the family House seat which Phil‘s widow, Sala, had occupied after her husband’s death. Her opponent was San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, who‘d been picked by the gay community as successor to the assassinated Harvey Milk. Pelosi buried Britt in money, and ran a nasty campaign that portrayed him as a “gay socialist.” (Years later, her money-raising practices sometimes get her in trouble. Last month, she was forced to shut down one of a her two political-action committees, which had been operating illegally as a double-dipping laundry, and candidates were asked to return its contributions.)
Before winning the House seat, her only real hands-on electoral experience had been helping Jerry Brown win the 1976 presidential primary in Maryland, where her father had been a congressman and mayor of Baltimore. But in 1992, as chair of the Democratic National Convention’s platform committee, she slavishly toed the ClintonNew Democrat line and prevented the dissident Brown — who‘d again won several primaries — from speaking to the committee.
Most profiles of Pelosi note her advocacy of AIDS issues and gay civil rights, and her bucking the Clinton administration by opposing most-favored-nation trade status for China on human-rights grounds. But given the huge Chinese-American and gay populations in her district (and lingering resentment in the latter over her defeat of Britt), these positions were a nearly obligatory reflection of local politics.
Aside from those two issues, Pelosi’s most notable accomplishment was to spearhead the first privatization of a national park. Under legislation passed by her mentor Phil Burton as part of his legacy to San Francisco, the militarily useless Army base at the Presidio was turned into a national park when it closed. But Pelosi expended her political capital while pushing through a bill that turned the Presidio — 1,500 acres of the most valuable real estate in the world — over to an unelected private trust dominated by her corporate and real estate cronies in the business of raising campaign cash; and the Presidio, with Pelosi‘s blessing, is now being developed by producerdirector George Lucas as headquarters for his film company (with $60 million in tax breaks to finance it). Pelosi even used her clout with Clinton to smother Mayor Willie Brown’s plan to convert the former base‘s 466-unit Wherry Houses into homes for low-income and homeless families, victims of San Francisco’s acute housing shortage. That‘s why, ever since, The Bay Guardian — San Francisco’s progressive alternative weekly — symbolically has always refused to endorse Pelosi for re-election to her supersafe seat.
As assistant minority leader and a member of the House‘s Human Rights Caucus, at the height of Ariel Sharon’s bloody offensive in the West Bank this spring — denounced by Amnesty International for criminal violations of human rights — Pelosi chose to ignore the Nobel Prize–winning organization and instead supported a hard-line DeLay-sponsored GOP resolution endorsing Sharon‘s blind use of military force, backing a resolution praising George Bush’s “leadership” in tilting toward Sharon, and voting for a GOP initiative to increase military aid to Israel (at a time when the Gallup Poll showed 60 percent of Americans favored suspension of that aid). There are, quite coincidentally, of course, many pro-Israeli fat cats in Pelosi‘s Rolodex of contributers.
Pelosi is capable of convenient political pirouettes. Right after Dick Gephardt’s Rose Garden sellout to Bush on Iraq, Roll Call reported that Pelosi was considering sponsoring an alternative to the Gephardt blank-check resolution giving Bush sole authority to decide on war. That would have shown some real leadership. But Pelosi dropped the plan, apparently because she thought it would hurt her in the inevitable contest to succeed Gephardt. Two weeks later, after it was clear a majority of the Democratic caucus would vote against war, Pelosi joined them — but, of course, her district is overwhelmingly anti-war. Then there was Pelosi‘s surprising endorsement of scandal-plagued Representative Gary Condit for re-election — an endorsement she was forced to withdraw after a firestorm of protest from women’s groups.
Pelosi went ballistic a few years ago when the head of the AFL-CIO‘s Committee on Political Education (COPE), in opposing her bid to chair the national Democrats, referred to her as an “airhead.” But, says a senior liberal Democratic strategist today, “Pelosi is simply not very articulate. She tends to talk too much — like many people who have limited confidence in their intelligence and tend to make up in verbosity what they lack in veracity.” That’s why the San Francisco Chronicle recently commented tactfully that in her noteless speeches Pelosi “tends to get sidetracked,” that she has a reputation for avoiding the press, and in her infrequent TV appearances she lacks the spontaneous authenticity of, say, Barney Frank or John McCain.
In Bay Area politics, Pelosi is considered an establishment figure. Says S.F. Supervisor Tom Ammiano, the once and future mayoral candidate who‘s built a successful progressive coalition against the Willie Brown pro-business machine, “I’ve rarely ever had her support,” adding, “We could do worse than Pelosi — but we could also do better.” And her close ally Representative Anna Eshoo accurately describes her pal as “first and foremost pragmatic.”
Pelosi got her new job as minority leader the old-fashioned way — she bought it, raising some $8 million for House Democrats in the last election cycle and criss-crossing the country handing out the checks. Now, the top staffers who ran the leader‘s office for both Tom Foley and Gephardt have been asked to stay on by Pelosi. That’s more of a signal of continuity than of the sharp break with its past lethargy the Democrats need to win.
And while she was infinitely preferable for the job than either of her more conservative challengers, it remains an open question whether Pelosi is equipped to make a real difference in the 14 months until the Democrats choose a new presidential candidate to lead their party.