Speaker Pelosi and the Revival of Progressive Politics in America

by Randy Shaw on May 6, 2010

Following the November 2004 elections, Karl Rove proclaimed a new conservative era and the institutionalization of Republican political control. Yet Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006, and retook the White House with large congressional majorities in 2008. How did this dramatic shift occur? George W. Bush’s failures clearly played a part, but among Democratic Party politicians, two are typically most credited. Howard Dean showed how the netroots could galvanize grassroots activism and raise millions of dollars for progressive candidates, and Barack Obama created the largest grassroots presidential campaign in history by tapping the public’s desire for “Change.” Yet Ronald Peters’ and Cindy Simon Rosenthal’s just-released book, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics, shows that Nancy Pelosi played a far greater role than is realized in reviving progressive politics after the disappointing 2004 defeats. Pelosi shaped the Democrats message, framed attacks on Bush and the Republican Party, maintained party unity and then delivered for progressives after becoming Speaker in 2006. Nancy Pelosi is not only the most powerful female politician in United States history, but she may also be the most effective progressive national elected official of her time.

This new book on Nancy Pelosi by Peters and Rosenthal differs from prior works in focusing on the details and specifics of Pelosi’s rise to power in Congress and her performance as Speaker and de facto Party leader. It is the type of book that will most commonly be found among political science majors and those studying the workings of the United States government, as it lacks the long anecdotes and page-turning stories offered by popular history writers like Robert Caro and Taylor Branch.

But there is tremendous value in a book that lays out facts in a dispassionate manner. And in the case of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics, it is the authors careful marshaling of the facts that makes the case for Nancy Pelosi’s political significance so strong, to the likely surprise of some readers.

Pelosi’s Rise to Power

Nancy Pelosi was primarily known as a Democratic Party fundraiser when she ran for Congress in San Francisco in a 1987 special election to fill Sala Burton’s seat. The authors make much of her opponent’s depiction of Pelosi as a “party girl” who lacked elective experience, but this ignores the prevailing view among progressive activists that Supervisor Harry Britt had been with them in the trenches for eight years, and would mark a landmark step as the first openly gay candidate to be initially elected to Congress.

We had a “Britt for Congress” sign in the window of our Noe Valley home, and I was among those who saw the 1987 election as a contest between a “movement” progressive and the candidate of the Democratic Party “machine.” In fact, activists widely criticized Pelosi’s candidacy as another example of “the machine” preferring a “safe” candidate with no prior electoral experience to a grassroots politician whose election would achieve a gay and lesbian milestone.

While the 1987 race now seems like ancient history, it still impacts many San Francisco progressives’ view of Nancy Pelosi. Simply put, she was not “one of us” then, and is still not identified with the city’s progressive movement as that term has been defined locally (unlike Phil Burton).

But Peters and Rosenthal have led me to reassess my perspective on the Pelosi-Britt race. Pelosi’s career has vindicated her campaign slogan that she would be “A Voice That Will Be Heard,” and she has been a far greater force for progressive change than I ever imagined. And because this book was released prior to the passage of health care legislation — for which Pelosi deserves chief credit — it actually understates Pelosi’s progressive accomplishments.

Pelosi as Organizer

Until reading this book, I did not primarily view Nancy Pelosi as a political organizer. Yet the authors convincingly show that Pelosi is a tremendous organizer whose “community” includes fellow Congressmembers, well-heeled donors, the entire Democratic Party, and reachable political independents. The book details how Pelosi recovered from the disappointing 2004 election defeat with a multi-part plan to change the nation’s political landscape. This would involve new communication and funding strategies, an unprecedented focus on messaging (the author’s found that Pelosi mentioned “children and families” to justify a wide-range of progressive policies in over 80% of her speeches as Speaker), a powerful commitment to winning Congressional races, and the building of a “team” mentality among often fractious Democrats.

It is no accident or coincidence that the Blue Dog Democrats no longer operate through a powerful Democratic Leadership Council, whose opposition to progressive policies brought Bill Clinton the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination. Nancy Pelosi knows how to keep moderate to conservative Democrats within the tent, and does so without compromising progressive legislation any more than is required to achieve the 218 votes for passage.

The authors spend considerable time on this latter point, which is often overlooked. Pelosi protects conservative Dems by allowing them to “vote their districts” so long as the legislation has enough votes for passage. She has forged such strong personal relationships with members that they know she is always looking out for their electoral interests, not simply her own progressive agenda.

In contrast, Pelosi’s Republican predecessor Dennis Hassert (with help from Tom DeLay) forced Republicans to take votes that would doom their re-election, which is what occurred in 2006 to bring Pelosi the Speakership.

Dick Gephardt, Pelosi’s Democratic predecessor as Majority Leader, felt that legislation should reflect Blue Dog concerns, even if this meant watered down measures that alienated the progressive base. Pelosi, in contrast, is shown in example after example to be focused on securing the most progressive outcome possible, and dealing with Blue Dogs by giving them a pass to vote no.

Making Congress Work

As a result of her community organizing skills, Pelosi has made the House of Representatives work for progressives as never before. The authors again provide detailed examples to support this point, and my chief criticism of the book is that they often repeat points multiple times. But the details of how Pelosi changed the committee assignment process to boost women and progressives, and in other ways consolidated power to advance progressive goals, are important, and better to overly repeat these facts than to leave conclusions unsupported.

On Inauguration Day, progressives assumed that President Barack Obama would lead legislative campaigns with Nancy Pelosi as his able lieutenant. But the past eighteen months have shown that Pelosi’s political skills and progressive instincts greatly exceed that of Obama, and that she is more likely to provide progressive leadership. In retrospect, this is not surprising, given her history growing up in a politically powerful and savvy family.

A politician raised by Maryland Democratic Party powerhouse, Thomas D’Alesandro, who then got political training as an adult from the savvy Phil Burton, should be expected to be head and shoulders above most other politicians. But because Nancy Pelosi did not run for political office until age 47, is more focused on progressive results than personal acclaim, and has a collegial as opposed to competitive relationship with colleagues, her ability to take the best of her male mentors — as well as her mother, the powerful political wife known as “Big Nancy” — has often been overlooked.

Peters and Rosenthal provide a portrait of Nancy Pelosi’s strength and progressive influence that has always been available, but not often seen. In doing so the authors require a major reappraisal of Pelosi’s historic legacy as a fighter for the progressive cause, one that might even convince her remaining skeptics in her home district of San Francisco.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, which will be out in paperback in July.

Filed under: Book Reviews

Translate »