In the summer of 1991, as a relatively obscure member of the US House who was serving her second full term in the chamber, Nancy Pelosi traveled to China with a nine-member congressional delegation that was urging Chinese officials to release jailed dissidents. She was supposed to follow a tightly scripted schedule of tours and meetings. But Pelosi had other ideas. With two other members of the delegation, she headed to Tiananmen Square to unfurl a banner that declared, “To those who died for democracy in China.”
The demonstration against the massacre two years earlier of Chinese students who participated in pro-democracy protests drew the ire of Chinese authorities, who decried Pelosi’s actions as illegal and briefly detained journalists who covered them. It also earned behind-the-scenes scorn from US officials who warned against offending a Chinese government that had joined the US-led coalition in the first Persian Gulf War and that was in negotiations with the administration of President George H.W. Bush to expand trade relations.
Pelosi’s response then, and in the years that followed, was stark: “If you cannot stand up for human rights in China because of commercial interests, you lose all moral authority to speak out for it in any place.” The California representative would be a key leader in fights against efforts by the Bush administration, and that of Democrat Bill Clinton to give most-favored-nation trading status to China.
This was not the first time Pelosi’s advocacy on human rights issues put her at odds with a president. As a member of Congress who began her tenure on Capitol Hill in the last years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, she joined her friend and colleague Ron Dellums in fierce opposition to the president’s wrongheaded policies regarding South Africa’s racist regime. That stance was not particularly surprising for a representative of the liberal city of San Francisco, which was home to a vibrant anti-apartheid movement. What was striking, however, was that, as she rose in stature and power, Pelosi maintained a steadier focus on human rights issues than the vast majority of House members.
As recently as August of this year, Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan drew praise from Chinese dissidents, condemnation from the Chinese government, and nervous responses from diplomats at a time when relations between Beijing and Washington were growing tense. But much of Pelosi’s work on human rights issues has paid attention to issues that would otherwise get short shrift from the media or Congress.
As Pelosi transitions from her leadership position into what will be the final chapter in her congressional career, she could do great service to a cause that has long been close to her heart by taking up a brief that embraces and extends her commitment to human rights. Like former president John Quincy Adams, who returned to the US House after leaving the presidency in 1829, Pelosi could leverage her stature to become a powerful voice on issues that are otherwise neglected. Adams used his status to present anti-slavery petitions at a time when the issue was rarely, if ever, addressed in Congress. Pelosi could use her status to demand that the Congress put a higher priority on human rights in everything from trade policy to global health initiatives to questions of war and peace.
I’m not naive about Pelosi’s record. I know she has blind spots, and that she has failed at times to speak up as boldly or as well as was required. Though she made a rare visit to the West Bank this year to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for instance, her record when it comes to defending the rights of Palestinians has been uninspired and every bit as disappointing as that of the vast majority of House members.
For the most part, however, Pelosi has been far more engaged with human rights concerns than past speakers and her colleagues in the current Congress. Indeed, argues House Rules Committee chair Jim McGovern, a longtime advocate on human rights and global hunger issues,
“There is not a single Member of Congress more dedicated to upholding democratic principles and human rights around the world than Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Each time we have traveled abroad to represent the people of the United States, I have been in awe of her tenacity, her courage, and her persistence in doing what is right—no matter what. I’ve seen her stand up to tyrants, bullies, and dictators. She uses her power not to diminish or demean, but to uplift and empower the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.”
Taking up the human rights brief in the next Congress would be demanding at a time when Republicans have taken control of her chamber. But, if we know anything about Nancy Pelosi, it is that she’s up for demanding duties.
Pelosi Can Do More Than Rest on Her Laurels
I’ve written about Pelosi for decades. In frequent collaboration with my friend and colleague William Greider, I wrote several of the first major profiles of Nancy Pelosi as a congressional leader. In them, I argued that Pelosi needed to be Pelosi. Instead of fearing her label as a “San Francisco liberal,” she needed to lean into it.
Pelosi’s combination of liberal values and strategic savvy–she learned her politics from her father, a New Deal Congressman who played the ward politics of Baltimore well enough to become mayor—has made her a favorite of Democrats who believe the party needs to distinguish itself from Republicans. Yet, as a senior Democrat who is rooting for Pelosi says, “Nancy’s got a great personality and she’s great on the issues, and she could be a perfect leader. But if she’s on the defensive about her politics she could do more harm than good. We can’t afford to be incoherent for two more years. It’ll kill us.”
Pelosi did not kill the Democratic Party. Across 20 of the most turbulent years in the party’s history, she led it to majority status twice—overturning the Republican majority that had sustained the disastrous co-presidency of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and then upending the Republicans who had deferred to the even more disastrous solo presidency of Donald Trump.
Yet, the Democratic advantages that she gained were, in each case, lost in ensuing midterm elections. And while there were significant legislative accomplishments in the first terms of Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden, there were also missed opportunities.
When she served as the speaker of the House after Obama’s initial election, Pelosi was able to keep a fractious caucus together to secure passage of major pieces of legislation, such as the Affordable Care Act. But there were always compromises, including the failure to include a public option in that health care reform law.
When a Pelosi-led Democratic House twice impeached Donald Trump, I was in her corner. But Pelosi steadfastly refused to entertain calls for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney for the lies they employed in order to draw the United States into the Iraq War, as well as their disregard of the Constitution once that war began. I wrote a book, penned dozens of articles, and delivered hundreds of speeches that objected to her position. I still think she was wrong. But her overall record and the close relationships she has built with House Democrats who have disagreed with her over the years on particular issues mark her as a uniquely influential figure on Capitol Hill.
Where Pelosi Can Make Her Greatest Contribution
As Pelosi prepares to surrender the speaker’s gavel and end her extended run as the leader of House Democrats, predictable partisanship tends to define the discussion of her tenure. Democrats recall her as a master legislative strategist who in so many senses was the face of opposition to Trump’s presidency, especially when she tore up the text of his 2020 inaugural address, and when she donned the perfect pair of dark glasses after a testy Oval Office meeting with the Republican president. Republicans maintain their crude critique of Pelosi in public, while quietly breathing a sigh of relief at the departure of a Democratic leader who invariably outwitted them.
The team that is moving to take charge of the House Democratic Caucus—New York Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark, and California Representative Pete Aguilar—is prepared for the task and should be allowed to chart their own course without too much prodding from the leaders they are replacing.
Instead of assuming a behind-the-scenes “influencer” role, Pelosi can make a greater contribution by leaving the floor maneuvers to others and taking the high ground as a leader on the human rights issues about which she has long been passionate.
The House could use a human rights rapporteur who is ready and willing to ask hard questions and demand necessary action in response to global debates about civil rights, civil liberties, treatment of refugees, and respect for women, the LGBTQ+ community, and racial and ethnic minorities. It needs a high-profile advocate who is ready, as Pelosi has urged, to “speak out in defense of the Rohingya people, Yazidis, and countless other communities seeking to worship and practice their faith free from oppression.”
Pelosi’s work over the years has prepared her to take the lead on these issues. She has shown courage and resolve that belies her image as an insider who is constantly seeking to raise money for the party and carry the agenda for Democratic presidents. Her battle with Clinton over Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China was an epic struggle, waged with then-Representatives Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And she waged it for the right reasons: out of concern for Tibetans, for minority groups that have long faced discrimination, for labor rights and environmental protection.
What if Pelosi were to do that on a grander scale as a former speaker of the House with ready access to the media and the attention of the chamber she has led for so many years? She could become the conscience of the House.
That would require Pelosi to stretch herself. She would have to acknowledge past blind spots and evolve on issues. But, freed from the duties and constraints of her leadership position, the outgoing speaker could build on a strong legacy and finish her congressional career as the essential voice that might, as Pelosi herself put it, “honor the spark of divinity that exists in every man, woman and child” and that calls on the Congress to recognize “our duty as public officials to ensure that no individual is made to suffer for who they are.”