When House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi sat down for a live interview with CNN’s Judy Woodruff three days after the November 5 election, every question from Woodruff featured some variation on the theme that “electing a liberal like you to the [House] leadership would consign the party to permanent minority status.” Instead of politely jamming this line of questioning down Woodruff’s throat, however, Pelosi, who that day had announced she had the votes to succeed Dick Gephardt as House minority leader, replied, “I don’t think that’s constructive.” Here she was, on the verge of being charged with turning her party into a fighting force of opposition to the Bush White House and new House majority leader Tom DeLay, and Pelosi was pulling punches. Claiming that “people elected me to be a leader and not an advocate for my own point of view,” she sounded disturbingly like, well, Dick Gephardt.
The explanation for Pelosi’s caution was not hard to find: Word of Gephardt’s departure and Pelosi’s arrival may have been greeted with delight by grassroots activists who are ready to take on the GOP, but it was immediately met with a campaign to prevent the California Democrat from changing the ideological and strategic approaches that have rendered Democrats all but incapable of challenging a popular President and his party. That campaign was the work of a Republican White House that fears an aggressive Democratic Party; of forces within the Democratic Party that are too corrupted or too afraid to change course; and of media that have reduced political coverage to the parroting of official spin.
Of course, the ultimate tests for Pelosi will not come in an interview with Judy Woodruff. Everyone agreed before the leadership vote that Pelosi’s anticipated tenure will be defined by how she leads her caucus into battle against the Bush Administration’s misguided foreign and economic policies. But she will not pass those tests by tempering her progressive positions. If Pelosi is not going to be Pelosi, then the Democrats will remain, as no less a commentator than Rush Limbaugh suggests, “a party that lost its soul.”
Pelosi occupies a position far closer to the soul of the party than Gephardt or soon-to-be-ex-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle–as was obvious when she became the highest-ranking party leader to join the majority of Congressional Democrats in opposing authorization of the Bush Administration to attack Iraq. By the standards of Congress and most American voters, Pelosi is a liberal. Through fifteen years in Congress, she has regularly achieved 100 percent ratings from organized labor and from environmental, consumer and human rights groups. She has echoed the enthusiasm of her San Francisco constituents and other urban progressives for gay rights, AIDS funding and reproductive freedom. But she has also, especially in recent years, been a critical player in battles on trade issues that are the highest priority of blue-collar Democrats in heartland towns far from San Francisco.
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.” Adds Congressman Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats: “Either Democrats are going to break out of this pattern of being in sync with the Republicans or they are going to be destroyed.”