With almost nothing in Washington seeming to work right, many eyes are on Nancy Pelosi to make a difference. Is she up to the challenge?
It probably matters less that she’s the first woman speaker of the House, elected by all 233 Democrats, and more that she’s been around the scene for two decades. But it may matter less that she’s been around for a while and more that she’s been a politician’s politician, lionized from coast to coast for her fund-raising skills.
If the California Democrat does not chuck her old eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth partisan mentality, little is likely to change on Capitol Hill. If she does not “get” that Americans are seriously tired of ineptitude and bickering in the nation’s capital, her tenure as speaker is doomed.
Her speech accepting the gavel acknowledged the difficulties ahead, especially deciding what to do about Iraq. Her gesture of asking children in the House chamber to come touch her new gavel was charming — and a smart photo op. Americans know that their children get short shrift at the federal level. Her words were encouraging — this should be a civil country where health care is affordable, college is accessible and retirement is reliable.
After the November elections, Pelosi did not get off to a good start in her efforts to provide a “new direction for America.” Her futile effort to get John Murtha elected as her deputy without having the votes for him, her blocking of rival Jane Harman as chair of the intelligence committee and her decision to bypass the committee process (and keep Republicans out of the picture) to try to ram her initial legislative ideas through the House quickly made her appear a trifle vindictive and ineffectual.
On the other hand, she is savvy, hardworking and well-organized. And the stakes are enormous. Her pledge to help oversee “the most honest and open Congress ever” should and will not be forgotten by reporters or voters. She knows that. She ran on a platform to end the “culture of corruption” in Congress. She will now be held accountable for that promise.
While President Bush is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic of his bumbled Iraq policy, pulling people almost at random out of one job to stick them in another, Democrats are rearranging the chairs in Congress in a process that seems almost as futile.
In both houses, Democrats armed with the power of the subpoena are planning hearings to try to figure out what went wrong in the last six years. In particular, the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., one of the legions running for president in 2008, wants to put all the president’s men (and one woman) on the hot seat to prod them on Iraq. But it’s too late for that.
Pelosi, of course, ostensibly has nothing to do with the Senate. But she has become symbolic of the new regime on the Hill. And as leader of the House, she will have enormous influence in whether and how Congress gets its act together. Along with the Senate’s new majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, she will be either credited with helping to change the tone in Washington or preserving the nasty status quo.
With the next presidential race under way, making a difference in D.C. is daunting. Bush would seem to have no political interest in helping Democrats. Democrats would seem to have no political interest in helping Bush.
But if Pelosi and Reid work well with Bush and Republicans on the Hill, and some actual work gets done in Congress, the nation profits. If Bush starts listening to senior Republicans and well-informed Democrats, if by a miracle Iraq becomes less of a mess, the nation profits.
To many Americans, Pelosi is a new face. But despite her efforts to greet them as a grandma from Baltimore (she is from Baltimore and she is a grandmother, but she is also a wealthy San Francisco matron who’s been a mover and shaker for years), Pelosi will be judged quickly as a veteran politician.
Her strategy of a 100-hour blitz of legislative action and new rules — specifically, ethics reform to “break the link between lobbyists and legislation,” a minimum-wage increase, cutting student-loan interest rates, implementing the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, broadening stem-cell research — seems a little too cute. Her party’s majority in Congress is thin, and the president is already hinting that he suddenly found his veto pen.
We must hope Nancy Pelosi becomes the most effective and most inclusive speaker of the House in U.S. history, and that she and Bush form, in her words, a bond of genuine partnership. For all our sakes.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)