Anyone who has heard Nancy Pelosi speak knows she is not a great speaker. Her favorite rhetorical device is to seize on a word and club her listeners over the head with it.
When she spoke from the floor of the House on Sunday in support of the healthcare reform bill, the word she wielded was “opportunity.” Her point -- that the bill would enable Americans to leave their jobs to start up new ventures without fear of not being able to get health insurance in their new gig -- was altogether valid and perfectly good, but she insisted on repeating the word “opportunity” so many times that she left listeners (this listener, anyway) a little woozy.
But when it comes to being a speaker -- the presiding officer of the House of Representatives and the leader of its majority party -- Pelosi is without peer. No speaker in the past century has played such a key role in enacting major reforms. No speaker since Henry Clay, who wielded the gavel in the 1810s and ‘20s, has had so great an effect on American life.
During the 20th century, there were distinguished and accomplished speakers, of course, most notably Sam Rayburn and Tip O’Neill. But neither was speaker during the great reforms of the 1930s and the 1960s, and the men who were speakers during those years -- Henry Rainey and Joseph Byrns during the New Deal, John McCormack during the Great Society -- played no major role in the epochal reforms of those eras.
Newt Gingrich did play a key role in rolling back welfare laws, but his speakership was plagued by his ethics problems and his rhetorical excesses, and he left Congress, to his fellow Republicans’ relief, after their setbacks in the 1998 elections.
Since Pelosi’s speakership coincides with a period of ideological and partisan polarization in Congress (chiefly the result of the extinction of liberal and moderate Republicanism), her triumphs are necessarily those of a party leader. In 2006 and 2008, she led House Democrats to sweeping electoral victories, in good measure the result of her fundraising, targeting and candidate recruitment prowess.
In the battle this year for healthcare reform, she had no cushion of Republican votes she could count on to ease the pressure on House Democrats. All of the votes had to come from her own, nervous ranks. And she delivered them.
In the months since the upset victory of Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown cost the Democrats their Senate supermajority, Pelosi played two crucial roles in pushing healthcare reform to enactment.
First, when President Obama was receiving advice to jettison the bill and settle for much smaller, incremental legislation, Pelosi argued that major reform and major victory were still possible, and that anything less would depress the Democratic base and amount to a missed opportunity of historic proportions. In time, Obama agreed.
Second, when her whips brought her a list of 68 House Democrats whose votes they considered to be in play, Pelosi decided to personally lobby each of them. As a speaker who understood her individual members’ districts and constituents, she had a good sense of which of her politically endangered colleagues were least likely to jeopardize their seats with a yes vote -- enabling her to allow the most endangered ones to vote no. Together, she and Obama became the most effective vote-getters since Lyndon B. Johnson.
In forcefully arguing for major reform, and in successfully lining up the votes for it, Pelosi was reflecting the two distinct strands of her political heritage. Along with her fellow Californians Howard L. Berman, George Miller and Henry A. Waxman, she is one of the four members of the House Democratic caucus who were proteges of the late Phil Burton -- the militantly liberal, legislatively brilliant San Francisco congressman who dominated the House during the 1970s.
Pelosi is also the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a New Deal-era congressman who became mayor of Baltimore. D’Alesandro was an old-style ethnic machine pol with liberal values, and Pelosi’s own rise through the ranks of the House Democratic caucus was greatly aided by support from similarly old-style, tough, deal-making Democrats such as David R. Obey and the late John P. Murtha, who found in her a deal-making ability to equal their own.
San Francisco and Baltimore, West Coast liberal and New Deal boss -- you can see all these in Pelosi’s passion, her charm, her toughness, her smarts. You can see them in the battle she waged: Waxman and Miller were the key authors of the House bill, and she put tough-as-nails Obey in the chair Sunday night to guard against Republican obstruction as the House finally voted on the contentious legislation.
On Friday -- though she surely doesn’t look it -- Nancy Pelosi turns 70. Not a bad couple of weeks’ work, Madame Speaker. Happy birthday.
Harold Meyerson is an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post and editor at large of the American Prospect.