LIKE THE NOTORIOUS head scarf she wore when there, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Syria — and the "she's finally gone too far" hysteria that accompanied it — has covered over the real story about her reign thus far. Consider:
Democratic freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) represents the kind of swing district that swung Congress to the Democrats in November — and the kind of district that would be watching Pelosi and her crew closely to see if they went too far left too fast.
During a recent trip home to hear what was on his constituents' minds, Yarmuth heard about Iraq everywhere he went — and the calls were almost uniformly for withdrawal, without patience for nuances like the nitty-gritty of Congress' constitutional powers. On Iraq, he sensed his constituents were actually more extreme in their views than either he or the House Democratic leadership was.
The back-home experiences of Yarmuth and many of his colleagues give the lie to "Pelosi fear-mongering" — the idea that the speaker from San Francisco is marching congressional Democrats down an extreme path on which their constituents don't want them to walk.
Arriving in Washington in 1987, Pelosi quickly developed a reputation for trendy clothes, high-dollar fundraisers and a hip, Bay Area-style leftism that suffused her approach to issues big — she opposed the Persian Gulf War — to small: A fervent supporter of gay rights, she once called for Congress to create a "gay Olympics."
"I pride myself in being called a liberal," she said in 1996.
Exploiting her penchant for unabashed — even flamboyant — liberalism, Republicans tried to scare voters last fall with the specter of a Pelosi speakership. This narrative flared up again with her trip to Syria. But Pelosi's governing style thus far has been shockingly cautious and centrist. To understand how she's been doing, look not to congressional Republicans' talking points — it will always be in their interest to paint her as too liberal, even if she were to appoint Dick Cheney as her chief of staff. Instead, consider who within her Democratic ranks feels fat and happy, and who doesn't.
It's the liberals in the party, not the moderates, who are dissatisfied with the new Pelosi order. "People are saying, 'When will it be our turn?' " liberal Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told the Politico, a new publication for political junkies, last week, complaining about his progressive colleagues' growing sense that they play second fiddle to the less numerous and more moderate Blue Dog Democrats. One Blue Dog recently exulted that "they did everything we asked" on the 2008 budget resolution. Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr.'s (D-S.C.) bill matched President Bush's defense funding request, strictly limited the entitlement spending so beloved by liberals and instituted tough pay-as-you-go rules that moderates had championed.
Progressives even felt they lost out on the Iraq supplemental bill, despite the perception that including any withdrawal date at all threw them a juicy bone. The final text emphasized moderates' demand that troops be combat-ready before deployment to Iraq and, to the dismay of progressives, pushed back the withdrawal date and made timetables conditional. More disgruntled war critics than worried moderates voted against the legislation.
Centrists express satisfaction with Pelosi — Republican centrists! Under the GOP majority, moderately labor-friendly bills "would have never gotten to the floor," centrist Republican Rep. Mike Ferguson of New Jersey recently told the New York Times. "Now they have been brought to the floor, and I've voted for them."
The House speaker has even quietly deferred dreams that her longtime liberal allies wanted to make reality once the Democrats regained power. She squelched Rep. Charles B. Rangel's (D-N.Y.) bid to reinstate the draft and Rep. John Conyers Jr.'s (D-Mich.) plan to impeach Bush. She asked Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to hold off on pushing for an end to the military policy of "don't ask, don't tell" toward gays and lesbians — an issue she holds dear.
But just because Pelosi has, so far, governed from the center doesn't mean she'll continue to do so. Might she decide her early moderation has become obsolete? Could her liberal heart still beat for unconditional amnesty for illegal immigrants and legalized gay marriage? On the inside, it surely does.
But Pelosi is a pragmatist, and there are two severe constraints that will keep her in the center at least through 2008. The first is her need to keep the tent big. Many of the freshman Democrats were elected from conservative districts, and their defeat in the next congressional elections could take the majority back out of the Democrats' hands. One of Pelosi's influential deputies, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, has been advising vulnerable freshmen to vote more for their districts and less for their party.
Pelosi's second constraint comes as a consequence of the rise of such outside activist groups as MoveOn.org, most of which are more left-leaning than the average House Democrat. There is a disconnect between these outside groups' goals — to move the party left — and the more preservationist aims of a leader within Congress. In no small part, the congressional leadership exists to protect the party's incumbents — who are, this year, a very different bunch from the constituents she used to represent in San Francisco. As speaker, her own convictions now take the back burner. With activist groups pressuring those incumbents from the left, she's got to give her colleagues opportunities to show their moderation.
"Because she needs to provide unity in her caucus, it leaves her in the odd position of taking a lot of heat from the left," congressional columnist Norman Ornstein says. In order to protect her moderates from getting blasted by the activists on their votes, "she will be less likely to bring up controversial things."
All this doesn't mean she's hopelessly hemmed in. By many measures, she has accomplished as much in her first months as Newt Gingrich did in early 1995, when the GOP took control of the House. She's got through a responsible budget, a war supplemental funding bill and a new panel on global warming. Now the Senate has to duplicate her level of discipline.
Indeed, Pelosi has been so careful in achieving her legislative aims that her critics on the right are often forced to stake out the odd position that she shouldn't be making any changes at all to Bush's program, the Republican tax cuts or the way the GOP did things when they were in power. Did Bush, who has been so petulant about the alterations made to his supplemental 2007 and fiscal year 2008 budget requests, really think he could send a budget to a Democratic-controlled Congress and get it sent back to him without any tweaks? Democrats will be Democrats, and Pelosi is a Democrat. The best you can hope for is that she'll behave a little more gently along the way.