Nancy Pelosi.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 13 2002 5:56 PM

Nancy Pelosi

The leader the House Democrats deserve.

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Given the glee that's emanating from the conservative commentariat over Nancy Pelosi's near-certain ascension to House minority leader, you'd think the Democrats were about to turn into acid-dropping Merry Pranksters riding around in the Furthur bus, just because their new leader represents Haight-Ashbury. Cal Thomas wrote that Pelosi's election "will have given Republicans two major victories in less than 10 days." An identical message—Nancy Pelosi, good for the Republicans—came from the National Review's John J. Miller and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. In the Weekly Standard, David Brooks called Pelosi "the most caricaturable politician since Newt Gingrich," and the term "Pelosi Democrats" has already replaced "Daschle Democrats" as the GOP's Democratic slur of choice.

And it's not just Republicans beating up on Pelosi. Although no Democrat has yet to concur with the assertion of a Washington Times columnist that she is a Manchurian Candidate for Socialist International, there's not a lot of joy in Moderateville. The New Republic's Peter Beinart worries that Pelosi will lead the Democrats into a "40-60 nation." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter says Pelosi's leadership "makes the Democratic caucus look more dovish than even the French." In Slate, Joe Klein dubbed Pelosi "the very sort of political anachronism the party should studiously avoid."

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Why hasn't Pelosi received the glowing coverage you would expect to be bestowed upon a woman who's about to become the most powerful female politician in American history? For the most part, her problem is one of image (the "San Francisco liberal") rather than substance, as Brooks implied when he called her "caricaturable." There are even issues on which the WeeklyStandard crowd and Pelosi agree, after all, such as human rights in China. Six years ago, the magazine approvingly quoted Human Rights Watch's assessment of her as "the conscience of the Congress" on that subject.

In fact, Pelosi isn't any more liberal than the average House Democrat, which is why the average House Democrat is going to vote for her. Critics cite Pelosi's 100 percent voting rating by Americans for Democratic Action, but Dick Gephardt had a 95 percent rating. House Democrats are liberal, and why shouldn't they be? Most Democrats think the party should support gay rights, higher CAFE standards, and spending on social programs. Are Pelosi's positions on welfare reform (against), trade (against fast-track), and war in Iraq (against) worrisome? Perhaps, but so are her caucus's—a large majority of House Democrats voted against the Iraq war resolution. As political scientist Ross K. Baker wrote in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, "if Pelosi were not a liberal when she first aspired to the job, she would quickly have had to become one," as Gephardt did by moving leftward during his climb to the top. While it's true that Pelosi's views, particularly on war and foreign policy, are out of step with much of the American public's, they're right in the mainstream of what House Democrats believe.

What's made Pelosi notable in the Democratic Party is less her voting record than her outspokenness—she called the first President Bush a "jerk"—and her fund-raising prowess. She honed her money-raising skills during her time as an unelected party activist, heading the California state Democratic Party and working as finance chair for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. After she won her first House race in 1987, her ability to rake in the dough helped her rise quickly through the party ranks. Her preposterously safe district—she routinely receives 85 percent of the vote—allows her to spend most of her time campaigning for other candidates (90 congressional districts in 30 states this election) and to give away much of the money she raises for herself. During the 2002 election cycle, Pelosi was the only member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, to distribute more than $1 million to her fellow candidates, nearly doubling the total of the next-closest Democrat, and she led the pack during the 2000 cycle as well. She also has a reputation as an effective party strategist and a good whip, getting credit for the Democrats adding five seats to their House totals in California in 2000 and for corralling enough votes to pass the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill after only a month on the job.

But despite her formidable political skills—even the Wall Street Journal acknowledged that she's smart and telegenic and hard-working—her tenure as House Democratic leader, which hasn't even begun yet, has been a complete disaster from a PR standpoint. Perhaps the Democrats would be best advised to once again take a page from the Republicans: The GOP has an effective leader and party strategist who fires up the party base. His name is Tom DeLay, and he's not the No. 1 House Republican. Pelosi needs a puppet. Too bad Denny Hastert is already spoken for.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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