Follow the Leader

By

As Nancy Pelosi coasted toward leadership of the demoralized House
Democrats this week, her message was as persistent as her trademark
smile: I am not a liberal. Throughout her 15 years in the House,
Pelosi has made her name as a combative lefty, delighting her San
Francisco constituents with trendy causes, celebrity friends, and
designer outfits. Once upon a time, she reveled in the "L" word,
telling an interviewer in 1996, "I pride myself in being called a
liberal. ... I don't consider myself a moderate." Now that she is
replacing Richard Gephardt as a national leader of the party,
however, and Republicans are lampooning her as a flighty California
flake, Pelosi wants you to think of her differently. At a press
conference last week, called so she could claim victory in the race
for House minority leader, she spoke in fuzzy, unassailable terms
about "growing the economy." She insisted that her election says
nothing "about the direction of the party." And, to those who
invoked the "L" word, she unveiled an ingenious new response: "I
guess you could describe an Italian-American grandmother that way."
Even her fashion sense was toned down. Washington insiders are
accustomed to seeing Pelosi resplendent in bright red power suits,
smartly accessorized with elegant pearls. But, as she claimed
victory from behind a drab podium, Pelosi dressed as neutral as can
be in a gray sweater and black-and-white checked jacket. Out with
the fashionable California liberal; in with the plain, common-sense
grandma.Pelosi did not grant interviews before her election this week. But,
aware that I was writing this article, an aide called me to offer
interviews with a handful of supporters who could assure me that
Pelosi's liberal reputation was a bunch of nonsense. As testimony
to her famously efficient political machine, my phone began ringing
within minutes. One Pelosi partisan even called from the
presumptive new leader's office, leaving a number where I could
reach her. (The number turned out to be the RSVP line for a
trademark schmoozefest Pelosi was hosting that night for new and
outgoing House members--complete with valet parking!) Pelosi even
had New York Representative Joe Crowley, who happens to share my
father's name, call on her behalf. I had not previously thought of
Crowley as a lead Pelosi supporter and, well aware of Pelosi's
political skills, could only wonder whether this was a
sophisticated psychological tactic.

It's no surprise that Pelosi is working so hard to dispel the notion
that she's a liberal. Already, Republicans are painting her as a
combination of Maxine Waters and Barbra Streisand. That's unfair:
Pelosi isn't a wild-eyed ideologue; she's just a fairly typical
member of the House Democratic caucus. And that's exactly the
problem. The caucus was already to the left of most Democratic
voters--and far to the left of the country as a whole--even before
November 5. And now many of its members have decided that the lesson
of last week's election disaster is that the party wasn't liberal
enough. Pelosi may say her liberalism isn't her defining feature.
But it's a big part of why she's about to get promoted. As Michigan
Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan recently put it, "I
don't think anybody's going to become the next minority leader of
the Democrats that wants to go along with [George W.] Bush on the
war. " In other words, Pelosi was chosen in part because she's not
expected to challenge the liberal instincts of the House Democratic
caucus. Which is a pity. Because, unless someone saves the House
Democrats from themselves, they could be looking at a long time in
the minority.

Pelosi is deservedly proud to be the first woman in the 213-year
history of Congress to lead a major party. (At her first leadership
meeting she claims to have "felt the spirit of Susan B. Anthony.")
More impressive still is how quickly a woman who first ran for
office when she was 47 years old has soared through the Washington
political ranks. It's a testament to Pelosi's three great skills:
manic energy, dazzling charm, and the all-important ability to
raise big money.

Born Nancy D'Alesandro, Pelosi grew up in the Little Italy section
of Baltimore, where her father was a populist congressman and
mayor, and her mother was a political organizer ("a boss," as
Pelosi put it to the Los Angeles Times recently). Politics ran in
the family--her brother also served as the city's mayor--but Nancy
only started dabbling in it after she moved to California in 1969
with her husband Paul, a banker. With a large family to raise,
Pelosi postponed whatever personal political ambitions she may have
had, instead volunteering with the state party. But inevitably she
was sucked into the machine. By 1976, she was in the thick of the
state's liberal politics, using her Maryland connections to help
Jerry Brown engineer an upset victory in the state's presidential
primary.

By the 1980s, two themes of her career were already coming into
focus. One was her amazing fund-raising touch; the other was a
personal charm that some equated with lack of substance. Her
ability to raise huge amounts of money earned her a post as chair
of the California Democratic Party in 1981, and, when she ran for
chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 1985, it was
with the blessing of party kingpins such as Mario Cuomo and Daniel
Patrick Moynihan. After her loss to party activist Paul Kirk, she
accused labor leaders who had not supported her of waging an
"anti-woman" campaign; one union boss allegedly called her an
"airhead." She instead became finance chair of the Democratic
Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising money for senators
nationwide.

Pelosi's entree into elective politics finally came in the form of a
dying widow's request. For years, Phil Burton had been the Bay
Area's powerhouse member of the House. After his 1983 death, his
wife Sala took his seat. But she soon fell ill with cancer, and, a
few months before her death in 1987, she asked Pelosi to run for
her seat. Once again, Pelosi's opponents implied that she was a
lightweight "being crowned by the political power brokers," as one
put it. And, once again, she displayed her fund-raising acumen,
outspending all 13 of her rivals combined en route to victory.

The new representative blew into stuffy Washington like a spring
breeze, with the heady air of a socialite. An attractive woman whom
Mary McGrory described as "a slim, fine-featured Californian,"
Pelosi quickly made "Best- Dressed" and "Best Dinner Companion"
lists in local publications. She also showed prowess in the area
her colleagues respected most: the money chase. The day after a
federal judge threw out a California law limiting campaign
contributions, Pelosi fired off a letter to her Democrat state
delegation colleagues announcing the "good news"--and hitting them
up for $10,000 contributions. When Pelosi was (ineffectually)
challenged for reelection in 1990, her frustrated opponent branded
her "moneybag lady."

Pelosi's first foray into national politics left little doubt about
her ideology. As a candidate in 1987, she emphasized the
environment and arms control; she even backed local opposition to
allowing the U.S. battleship Missouri dock in San Francisco with
nuclear weapons aboard. After her election, she declared her top
priorities to be cutting off aid to the Contras and dramatically
boosting AIDS research. And she fought every conceivable battle for
gay rights, even calling for legislation to mandate that the U.S.
Olympic Committee allow gays to hold athletic competitions under
the term "Gay Olympics. " (It never happened.)

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Pelosi adamantly opposed military
action, lamenting that George H.W. Bush was "resorting to
militarization in order to solve a conflict." The war, she said,
was an "ill-conceived policy of violence;" Bush, she argued, was
acting "illegally." At one January 1991 peace rally, Pelosi turned
the president's words against him, declaring, "It is so important
that you are here tonight to draw a line in the sand for George
Bush. " She even delivered a floor speech devoted specifically to
opposing the war on environmental grounds, claiming, "The war cloud
that would result from exploding oil fields and large-scale bombing
of Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the Middle
East would doom the environment for many years to come."

But, even as Pelosi was repelled by America's foreign interventions,
she took a keen interest in defending human rights worldwide. In a
1999 interview, Pelosi acknowledged that in San Francisco,
"probably more so than in the rest of the country, there's a
reluctance to use force. But there's a strong intolerance for human
rights violations." And so, from her first years in the House, she
became one of Washington's loudest critics of political repression
in China. Since her arrival in the House, Pelosi has turned every
vote on trade relations with China into a debate about the
country's human rights record. When Bill Clinton sought
congressional support for humanitarian military interventions in
Bosnia and Kosovo, Pelosi supported him, citing her memories of
Anne Frank's diary.

Pelosi staked out similar ground on domestic policy. Like most
Democrats, she almost always advocated more spending and rarely
supported tax cuts. Pelosi played little role in the realignment of
fiscal policy that defined the Clinton years. In fact, she was not
much of a policymaker at all, using her perch on the House
Appropriations Committee mostly to fight funding battles for pet
causes like the National Endowment for the Arts and family planning
overseas. She occasionally defied her liberal label, primarily on
trade (an issue of importance to many of her California business
donors). Yet on one of the toughest domestic policy questions of
the decade, welfare reform, Pelosi took a hard line. The law, she
said, was aimed at "reduc[ing] the deficit at the cost of our
poorest Americans," and would "thrust millions more into poverty."

All the while, Pelosi was winning friends and influencing people, in
large part thanks to her fund-raising wizardry. As late as 1996,
she declared that she had no interest in a leadership position,
saying she would rather pursue senior House committee positions.
But, by 1999, Pelosi was lining up support for a leadership bid.
And, when then-Whip David Bonior announced in 2000 that he would
leave the House, Pelosi quickly pounced.

The whip's job mainly involves the grunt work of head-counting,
cajoling, and policing the House floor to maintain party discipline
on votes. But the race took on an ideological flavor when Pelosi
drew a strong opponent in Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, a House
veteran with a more moderate image. Hoyer, whose base of support
consisted of House centrists and pragmatists, suggested that Pelosi
was too liberal for a Democratic House caucus that would have to
appeal to rural conservative swing voters to regain a majority.
Pelosi shied away from an ideological confrontation, however,
minimizing her differences with Hoyer ("The idea of right-left,
moderate-conservative-liberal doesn't mean very much," she
argued).

Instead, the race became a glorified popularity contest. Charm,
tactics, and, in this case, money played the deciding roles. For
months, Pelosi wooed members with exclusive dinners and lobbied
them relentlessly. In an effort to pick up the support of undecided
California moderate Cal Dooley, she enlisted several of the state's
major Democratic donors to call Dooley on her behalf. Pelosi's team
even gave supporters 7:30 a.m. wake-up calls on October 10 of last
year, the day of the whip election. Then there was the cash: Hoyer
raised an impressive $1.5 million for his fellow
members--impressive, that is, until compared with Pelosi's $3.9
million.; "But Pelosi's perky charm disguises a steeliness that has
helped her climb the House ranks."

With her typical Bay Area panache, Pelosi threw herself a victory
party with musical entertainment provided by Steve Miller and
former members of the Grateful Dead. Plenty of Democrats were
thrilled with Pelosi's ascension-- especially her California
allies, women, and a group of core liberals who follow her with the
zeal of what one aide calls "a cult." (Chief among these is George
Miller of California, a smart liberal veteran who is one of
Pelosi's closest confidantes.) But other Democrats fretted that
Pelosi was winning support more through her bank account than any
promise of the broader political vision her struggling party
desperately needs. "She's just a fund-raiser," complains one aide
to a senior House Democrat. "A wealthy woman with a lot of wealthy
friends."

Meeting Pelosi, it's not hard to understand her popularity. I
visited her in her Capitol office shortly after she was elected
whip, and she could not have been a more gracious host. She fussed
at length over what beverages she had to offer me. (Pelosi is known
to throw the best parties in Congress and always has the best food
at her meetings, notably raspberry chocolate cake. "Food is central
to her political operation," says an aide to a liberal House
member. "And it's not a trivial thing. There's a lot of warmth
behind that--she's a mother, she's a provider.") She was
endearingly humble about her new national prominence. "You have to
have a sense of humor about it," she told me. "One minute, you're
anonymously buying a loaf of bread in a place you're traveling in,
and the next, you're talking to two thousand people." And she spoke
about her friendships with pop-culture activists with the casual
air of someone who knows enough celebrities not to be awestruck by
them. Bono? "Oh, he's great. I saw him again yesterday." Tibet
freedom activist Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys? "You know, he's so
young. But, again, knowledgeable." Richard Gere, another Tibet
activist? "He is an attractive man." It's easy to see why people
want to be Pelosi's dinner companion.

But Pelosi's perky charm disguises a steeliness that has helped her
climb the House ranks. "She has a mettle to her that is disguised
by a wonderful smile," says Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton aide
and incoming Chicago-area representative. "Nancy Pelosi is a
take-no-prisoners type of politician," says a senior House aide.
That edge has cut both ways, however. On the one hand, her
advocates say she's an extremely tough opponent to defeat. But
others say her hard-charging style has caused blunders that have
led some Democrats to question her political acumen.

For instance, even Pelosi allies were befuddled last winter when she
donated $10,000 to Lynn Rivers, an obscure Michigan representative
redistricted into a race against John Dingell, a mighty House
veteran of 46 years who happened to back Hoyer for whip. Not only
did Pelosi infuriate the dean of her caucus, she did so on behalf
of an ally, Rivers, who was likely to lose anyway--and ultimately
did. Pelosi caused a stir again in June, when she intervened in a
dispute over redistricting in New York state, which was slated to
lose two seats after the 2000 census. Democrats had feared they
would lose both seats but negotiated a deal--approved by
Gephardt--in which each party would sacrifice one. But, when Pelosi
found out that the Democratic seat slated for extinction belonged
to her ally, Louise Slaughter, she called the New York state
assembly leader to try to undo the plan. Washington Democratic
leaders, with whom she never checked, were furious.

There were other campaign-related blunders as well. Pelosi recently
irked several colleagues when a political action committee (PAC)
she established was deemed too closely affiliated with another one
of her PACs in what looked like an effort to skirt campaign finance
limits. Several embarrassed Democrats had to return donations from
the PAC just days before the election. Finally, in a May interview
with Time magazine, Pelosi argued that the party shouldn't waste
money on House races in Michigan and Ohio because they were
unwinnable--to the great dismay of party officials in those states
who were trying to keep up morale. None of these episodes alone
would amount to much, but, taken together, they trouble some
Democrats. "I've heard members say, `I love Nancy, but I don't know
that she's ready for prime time,'" says a liberal House aide--a
sentiment I've heard echoed several times.

Few such complaints are heard about Pelosi's performance as whip. In
an early and difficult test, she helped shepherd campaign finance
reform through dozens of attempted GOP poison pills, holding
together a slim majority that shifted from amendment to amendment.
She also maintained a shrewdly sober tone in her suddenly important
role as top House Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, a
perch she refrained from using for tacky partisan advantage--
although she did challenge the White House over an independent
commission to investigate the September 11 attacks.

But the larger issue is less Pelosi's tactical decision-making than
her strategic vision. This was the theme of Texas Representative
Martin Frost's campaign against her for minority leader. The race,
which had been waged under the radar for months, was publicly
decided within days of last week's election, when Pelosi announced
that she had the support of a majority of the caucus. Like Hoyer,
Frost is a moderate who argued that he better understood how
Democrats could appeal to the broad voting public. Most House
Democrats hail from safely gerrymandered liberal districts--a
circumstance that tends to skew their impressions of the overall
electorate. Frost tried to remind his colleagues that although Al
Gore won the popular vote in 2000, he carried only 200 of the
nation's 435 congressional districts. In other words, if Democrats
wanted to reclaim the House, they would need to win voters in
pro-Bush districts. Frost was basically arguing for a continuation
of the strategy begun by Gephardt, who had recruited conservative
candidates for seats in swing districts, downplayed gun control,
and dodged a renewed tax-cut debate this year.

Pelosi's critics fret that she has never had to think this way and
lacks any experience in framing campaigns to appeal to moderate
voters. Frost bragged that, as chairman of the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), he helped Democrats pick
up five seats in the House in 1998 in areas like Mississippi and
New Mexico. ("Frost's DCCC did more with less than any campaign
committee in modern history," raved election guru Charlie Cook.)
Pelosi, by contrast, had little to claim beyond successes in some
California House races where her personal impact was hard to gauge.
And Pelosi herself, of course, has long represented a safe, liberal
seat in a state Democrats largely dominate. Several Democrats
recall a January campaign strategy meeting for which Pelosi called
in one of her California political advisers. His message--that the
party was too fixated on rural swing districts--struck several
Democrats as arrogant and clueless. "She perhaps is a little naive
about how you win elections," says an experienced party campaign
strategist. "If we could have a California playing field every
year, we'd elect three hundred twenty members. She's going to have
to take a real leap to understand all the mechanics of campaigns."

Frost's allies also warned that Pelosi's cultural identity could
become a liability for the party, noting that Republican House
candidates used her name to tar Democrats as too liberal in Georgia
and New Mexico, and they broadcast her image in a negative ad in
Alabama, where candidate Joe Turnham was slammed for "playing ball"
with Pelosi, who "opposed President Bush's war on terror." But
Frost was never able to make this message stick. Just as she did
with Hoyer, Pelosi downplayed ideological differences with her
rival, preferring to fight on her own terms--namely, personal
alliances and cash. Once again, she out- schmoozed and out-raised
her opponent--doling out $1 million to fellow Democrats from her
PAC--and once again she prevailed.

In a sense, Pelosi's victory was sealed by her stance on Iraq.
Although Gephardt made a show of supporting the president's
resolution, Pelosi refused to go along, insisting the president
spend more time working through the United Nations to find a
peaceful solution. Pelosi argued that, as a high-ranking member of
the House Intelligence Committee, she had seen no evidence to
suggest that Iraq posed an imminent threat against the United
States. Some reports said Pelosi actually lobbied Democrats against
the war, although her allies deny that. "She was collecting numbers
and figuring out where people were, but I didn't think she was
banging the table on behalf of her own position," says New York
Democrat Anthony Weiner. Pelosi wound up backing an alternate
Democratic resolution that would have required Bush to return to
Congress for the approval to use force if the United Nations would
not grant it. When a majority of her caucus joined with Pelosi on
Iraq--confounding observers and providing the first evidence that
House Democrats didn't buy the conventional wisdom that they should
back the president on post-September 11 national security issues--
insiders suggested the race for leader had just been decided. The
vote was a defining moment for House Democrats, who felt that
Gephardt's support for the president embodied all that was wrong
with the party's centrist leadership.

However popular this view may be within the House Democratic caucus,
though, there's little evidence that more strident opposition would
have benefited the party. In fact, Democratic strategists who
closely monitored House campaigns around the country say opposition
to Bush on Iraq did serious damage to Democrats nationwide. "Our
polls show that the week the Iraq debate started, the race went
south," says a House leadership aide. "The week the Baghdad
three"--Democrats Jim McDermott, David Bonior, and Mike Thompson,
all of whom criticized Bush from Iraq in early October--"started,
the race went south." In a tightly contested race in Indiana's
second congressional district, for instance, the Iraq debate caused
Democrat Jill Long Thompson's fortunes to plummet quickly en route
to a loss to Republican Chris Chocola.

Moderate Democrats worry that Pelosi, like many of her House allies,
believes last week's electoral rout proves that Democrats need to
veer back to a more confrontational liberal position, especially on
foreign policy. "I don't think the lesson of this election is that
Democrats should have been more forceful in opposing the president
on the war," says a party strategist. "In the last decade, foreign
policy was mainly taken off the table as an issue for Democrats.
And now, it's back on the table. And voters aren't going to vote
for a party they don't feel safe with." As Washington-state
Representative Adam Smith, co-chairman of the House New Democrat
coalition, puts it, "If Democrats conclude from this that Jim
McDermott was right, then we're gonna be buried."

No one expects liberal Democrats to vote against their consciences.
But they do need to understand how the public perceives them--an
instinct that can only be honed by experience appealing to the
political center. Yet none of the Pelosi allies with whom I spoke
would even entertain the notion that their opposition to the
president's Iraq policy had not played well on November 5.
Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank scoffed that operatives
with polling data showing the war to be a campaign liability were
peddling "bullshit." California's Anna Eshoo said questions about
the party's national security image amounted to "Beltway think."
She also pointed out that Bush has wound up doing precisely what
House Democrats wanted--working hard through the Security Council.
Yet that ignores the strong evidence that Bush has only succeeded
at the United Nations thanks to the threat of unilateral action--a
threat made credible by the use-of-force resolution, which most
House Democrats opposed. While Pelosi has not made these arguments
herself in the aftermath of the election debacle, it's worth noting
that they were repeatedly offered by supporters she had explicitly
deputized to call on her behalf.

Ultimately, many Democrats say that Pelosi's personal beliefs don't
matter as much as those of her caucus--that a House "leader"
actually spends more time placating than leading. But last week's
election--in which the party's liberal base largely turned out, but
swing voters broke Republican--proved that what the Democrats need
right now is strong, credible moderates to save the liberals from
themselves. In the '90s, Clinton was able to do this; to some
extent, so was Gephardt. Pelosi has yet to show any sign that she's
prepared to follow suit. "She has got her beliefs," says her
communications director, Brendan Daly. "But we are here to win, and
she understands that to do that you need to be in the middle." For
now, we'll just have to take his word for it.

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