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is there any virtue in “american” liberalism?

Tuesday, 17 October 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments


Newsweek 10/23/06

Rolling With Pelosi

The GOP says she’s a loony lefty, and she is, in fact, unabashedly liberal.
But she’s also a pol, and may just become Madam Speaker.

By Karen Breslau, Eleanor Clift, and Daren Briscoe

Nancy Pelosi walks out of an airport the way others might flee a burning
building. A car is waiting outside and the California congresswoman,
straining under the weight of a suitcase, a fold-over bag and a pile of
newspapers, cannot reach it quickly enough. Behind her, two young aides are
having a hard time keeping up with their 66-year-old boss-if only because
both of them are attempting to navigate their way through the concourse
while furiously typing into their BlackBerrys at the same time.

There are only a few weeks left before the midterm elections, and for
Pelosi, the few minutes it takes to walk from the gate to the exit are
wasted time. Time that could be spent memorizing the names and faces of the
200 people she’s about to meet, or squeezing donors for last-minute
contributions that will enable Pelosi to reach her ultimate goal: winning
the 15 seats Democrats need to take control of the House. If they do,
Pelosi, the House minority leader since 2002, will rise to Speaker of the
House. She’ll be the first Democrat to hold the job in 12 years. And the
first woman, ever.

The chances look pretty good. Current polls show Democrats could win 25 or
more House seats. But Pelosi’s strategy seems to be to campaign as if she
doesn’t believe it. Her own district in bluest of blue San Francisco is
safe, so she spends most of her time on the road scrounging votes-and
cash-for others. In a typical week she touches down in five cities in four
days, a blur of restaurant fund-raisers and quieter, one-on-one appeals.

This October afternoon it’s Portland, Ore. Inside the car at last, Pelosi
starts making up for lost time. An aide has already dialed a cell phone and
hands it over to the boss, telling her who’s waiting at the other end of the
line. Pelosi congratulates the Pennsylvania candidate Patrick Murphy for
being selected to give the Democrats’ response to the president’s Saturday
radio address. A few pleasantries later, she hangs up and the other aide
immediately hands her a different phone. Another congressman wants to review
the guest list for his fund-raiser. She hangs up and the aide passes Pelosi
another phone. The congresswoman grows irritated when the aide fumbles to
explain what the call is about. “First who,” she instructs, “then what.”

This telephonic ballet continues as she rolls from a fund-raiser to a senior
center, where Pelosi takes the stage and transitions into her standard
speech, a collection of one-liners, slogans and personal homilies so tested
and timed and rehearsed that they shield her like armor. “You must drain the
swamp if you are going to govern for the people,” she says, wagging a
finger. The Republicans “have forgotten who they work for. [Democrats]
haven’t had a bill on the floor for 12 years. We’re not here to whine about
it; we will do it better. I intend to be very fair. I do not intend to give
away the gavel.” Pelosi, who is married to a real-estate investor and has
five kids, always tries to ground her politics in the personal, reminding
her audience of her domestic roots. At one point, chattering from the crowd
grows a little too loud. She leans in to the microphone. “Am I going to have
to use my ‘Mother of Five Voice’ to be heard?”

The line works. The audience laughs. She knew they would, because they did
the last time she used it. And the time before that. If Pelosi has stolen
anything from the Republicans, it is a total devotion to the discipline of
message control. The Democrats may be forever doomed to squabble over what
to do about Iraq and immigration and gay marriage, but Pelosi is unfailingly
consistent. A recent addition to her arsenal of barbs scolds Republican
leaders for failing to stop former congressman Mark Foley’s lurid messages
to teenage pages. “As a mother and grandmother, I think ‘lioness’,” she
says. “You come near the cubs, you’re dead.”

It is Pelosi’s discipline-at keeping Democrats united against the GOP, and
especially in raising millions of dollars for her colleagues’ campaigns-that
has paved her way to power, even if it is, at the moment, minority power.
And in an age when politicians can’t seem to get enough camera time, Pelosi
is a bit more selective. She makes the rounds of the Sunday-morning shows,
and even went on “Letterman.” But she isn’t a regular face on cable TV,
where aggressive hosts would try to prod her off message and viewers would
have time to take her measure and form strong (possibly negative) opinions
about her. “Two thirds of the public have absolutely no idea who I am,”
Pelosi tells NEWSWEEK. “I see that as a strength. This isn’t about me. It’s
about Democrats.”

Pelosi’s relative anonymity has made it difficult for Republican candidates,
who have attempted, and so far largely failed, to make her into a scary
national symbol of the left. It’s hard to spook people with a face no one
recognizes. Of course, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Some of the ads
are unintentionally funny. In North Carolina, GOP Rep. Charles Taylor is in
a tough re-election fight against former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler. In
the past, Taylor has won by portraying his Democratic opponents as
weak-kneed liberals. But Shuler is so conservative that the Republicans once
tried to recruit him as a candidate. The Heisman Trophy runner-up is
anti-abortion, anti-immigration and pro-gun. He even supports the war in
Iraq. You wouldn’t know it watching Taylor’s TV ads, which accuse Shuler of
“following the playbook of San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi.” With the
sound of a football crowd in the background, the narrator sums it up: “The
Pelosi game plan: elect Heath Shuler and others like him and take over
Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants.” Recently, President George
W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have taken to mentioning Pelosi by
name in campaign speeches. (A few Democrats, too, have found it useful to
keep their distance. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., running for Senate in
conservative Tennessee, makes sure to let people know that he challenged
Pelosi for minority leader.)

The critics have a point: she is unabashedly liberal. Pelosi leads
opposition to the Iraq war on the House floor. She’s pushed hard to roll
back Bush’s tax cuts. She is an ardent defender of abortion rights-differing
with members of her conservative Roman Catholic family over the subject.
She’s had no compunction about playing hardball politics-going after
troubled GOP counterpart Tom DeLay with a ferocity reminiscent of DeLay
himself. “We will not be Swift Boated again,” Pelosi says. “Not on national
security or anything else.” The Republicans “are not constrained by money,
truth or any sense of decency in what they will say about anybody and what
they will charge, and you have to slam them right back.”

Pelosi clearly likes this part of the game: the pushing back. She comes by
it naturally. She has learned her way around Washington in her two decades
in the House, but her real political education began in her own house when
she was a young girl. Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was the mayor
of Baltimore-her oldest brother, Thomas, would also go on to become
mayor-and the family’s Little Italy row house was open to visitors. Day and
night, men and women came to the mayor asking for help. On the table in the
front room was the “favor file,” a handwritten ledger in which her father
kept track of the things he did for people. Young Nancy practiced her
penmanship by logging entries in the book.

The youngest child and only daughter after five sons, she learned how to get
around-and get her way-in a man’s world. Those early experiences became the
basis for her dealings on clubby Capitol Hill, a male-dominated culture if
ever there was one. She came to Congress later in life. She was first
elected at 47, after years as a mother and Democratic Party official and
fund-raiser in California. In Washington, Pelosi has run her political life
much in the way her father ran his. The favor bank is central to the way she
does business. “These new guys think you just take out and take out,” says
Rep. Jim McDermott, a friend. “She understands you put in, you put in, you
put in, and then, at some point, you say, ‘I need a favor’.” Pelosi doesn’t
use a DeLay-style “hammer” to keep her party in line. “She won’t say, ‘Vote
this way’,” McDermott says. “She’s very realistic. She’ll say, ‘You are free
to do what you want.’ But you can be sure she’ll remember if you don’t do
the right thing.”

When that happens, colleagues say, Pelosi can be icy. When a member tells
her, “‘I’m sorry, I can’t be with you’,” says California Rep. Anna Eshoo,
the leader will sometimes reply, ” ‘We can’t be with you, either’.” Pelosi,
already preparing for the possible takeover, hands out printed cards listing
all the things she wants to accomplish in her first 100 hours as
Speaker-passing a minimum-wage hike, enacting the 9/11 Commission’s
recommendations and passing a bill to promote stem-cell research. If she
does get the gavel, Pelosi knows some of the things on her list may not go
over very easily with her more conservative Democratic colleagues. That’s
when, after socking away favors for 20 years, she will dip into the bank,
crowded with I.O.U.s, and make a few long-awaited withdrawals. Whether that
capital can fund a successful liberal comeback will then be the central
question before the House-and the country.

With Holly Bailey, Jonathan Darman and Richard Wolffe.

Categories: Society
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