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The Democrats’ lightning rod: Nancy Pelosi

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Conservatives and moderates alike initially dismissed Nancy Pelosi’s slow but steady rise through the ranks of the Democratic Party as a gift to the GOP. Hailing from California’s fifth congressional district, which includes Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, one of the country’s most liberal neighborhoods, Pelosi was viewed as the kind of progressive extremist that was going to antagonize her party’s moderate base, thus condemning, in perpetuity, the Democrats to the minority.

Instead, nineteen years after being first elected to Congress, thanks to a formidable mix of fundraising prowess, expertise in political jostling, and inexhaustible energy, Pelosi carried the Democrats to victory in the 2006 midterm elections, when they took control of Congress. Nominated Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pelosi became the highest-ranking woman ever in the history of American politics.

Today, in what seems to be a poisonous electoral cycle for the Democrats, Nancy Pelosi’s fortunes may be turning for the worst again. Having wrestled through the House some of the most meaningful, if divisive, legislation of a generation, from healthcare reform to the stimulus package, Pelosi’s name has become a lightning rod for the criticism directed to the Democratic leadership, a rallying cry for the resurgence of the Republican movement, and a scapegoat among her endangered Democratic colleagues, more than willing to sacrifice her in order to hold on to their seats. In an election year vaunted for the rise of the conservative woman, from Sarah Palin to Michele Bachmann and Sharron Angle, the political decline of Pelosi may also come to epitomize what many believe will be a net loss of seats held by women.

Born and raised in Baltimore, in a household deeply involved in local affairs (both her father and brother served as mayors), Pelosi breathed Democratic Party politics from a young age. Her own active career, however, didn’t kick off until much later, when, at age 47, having married a successful financier from San Francisco, moved to California and raised five children, Pelosi ran for office in 1987. She was wealthy, well-dressed and very liberal (Pelosi once said that she doesn’t “consider herself a moderate”), in short the perfect incarnation of the so-called coastal “elite” that conservative Americans deeply resent.

Once elected, Pelosi quickly built up one of the House’s most progressive voting records, supporting gay rights, environmental causes, economic policies weighted in favor of the working class, and fighting against sex-based discrimination at home and human rights violations abroad. She rose to prominence thanks to her vocal opposition to the administration of George W. Bush – she once called him “an incompetent leader […] who has no judgment, no experience and no knowledge” – and to US military engagement in Iraq, at a time when it was widely considered unpatriotic to do so.

Despite her liberal streak, which many thought would doom her career, Pelosi managed an unlikely climb up the power ladder thanks to her widely-acknowledged charm, the fundraising skills she groomed during years of behind-the-scene work for the California Democratic Party (among other things, she was the state party chair from 1981 to 1983) and a certain ruthlessness in backroom dealings. First as House Minority Leader from 2002 to 2006, and then as Speaker of the House, Pelosi whipped the members of the Democratic caucus into shape, enforcing strict party discipline and ensuring that they all voted along the party line. In 2005, the year before the Democratic Party regained control of Congress, House Democrats under the leadership of Pelosi voted together 88% of the time.

With President Bush’s approval ratings sinking, this unified Democratic Party managed to counter the GOP vote by vote, in an unwavering opposition that, employing deeply partisan tactics not unlike those the Republicans are using now against Pelosi, ultimately propelled the success of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid. With the same attention to detail, willingness to compromise, even at the risk of alienating her progressive base, and member-by-member strategy, Pelosi also successfully built support for President Obama’s ambitious and controversial agenda.

It turns out that, in doing so, Pelosi, now 70, may have exhausted her political capital. The face of a generally disliked Congress, Pelosi has seen her own approval rating, according to a Gallup poll released at the end of October, slipping to a low of 29%, with 56% of Americans who view her unfavorably. That she has become one of the favorite targets of a very aggressive GOP campaign doesn’t help. Republicans have successfully tied Pelosi to the much-despised concept of the “big spenders in Washington,” and the “Fire Pelosi!” slogan has spread like wildfire across the country. 

While her own seat is not at risk, if, as predicted, the Republicans retake control of the House on November 2nd, it is expected that she will step down from her role as the ranking Democrat in the House. Even if Democrats manage to hold on to their majority but only by a narrow margin, thus effectively registering a net loss of seats, Pelosi may either voluntarily resign or may be forced out by a vote of her own colleagues. Some embattled Democrats are wary of her liberal politics at a time when the mood of the American electorate seems to be shifting to the right, and have been starting to renounce her in their campaigns. An ad from Jim Marshall, a conservative Democratic congressman from Georgia, opens with the following words: “Georgia is a long way from San Francisco. And Jim Marshall is a long way from Nancy Pelosi.”

Other Democrats, in the meantime, have been turned off by Pelosi’s determination and sometimes vengeful tactics – she once told Time “Anybody who’s ever dealt with me knows not to mess with me” – and may harbor political aspirations of their own.

One of the few names that have been thrown around as likely successors to Pelosi is the much more moderate Maryland Representative and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who has been locked in a fight with Pelosi over party leadership positions, and always trailed her, since their 2001 battle to become the House Minority Whip.

The fact that only Hoyer, who is 71, has been named a possible contender for the number one Democratic spot in the House is a testimony to Pelosi’s ability to fend off, over the course of her career, all competition to her power. Having successfully pushed her allies, some of whom don’t necessarily make great leaders for the future, into many of the party’s top positions, Pelosi’s departure may leave the Democrats dealing with a dangerous leadership vacuum.

The demise of the country’s top female politician could also symbolize an election year that may seal the reversal, for the first time in a generation, of the fortune of women politicians in America. Despite the visibility of a few GOP celebrities – a visibility not necessarily indicative since one must remember that Sarah Palin is not an elected official and is not running, while candidates like Sharron Angle, Linda McMahon and Carly Fiorina are all locked in tight races and may still lose their electoral bids – many female members of Congress, particularly on the Democratic side, are struggling to survive the aggressive challenges mounted by their Republican male opponents. This is the case, for example, of veterans like Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Patty Murray of Washington, and of freshmen like Representatives Debbie Halvorson of Illinois and Betsy Markey from Colorado. Since, traditionally, women perform better in those elections when Democrats prevail overall and since, of the 90 women serving in Congress today, 69 are Democrats and only 21 Republicans, David Wasserman, of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, predicts that this year’s GOP wave may mean that as many as 10 fewer women could be serving in the next session of Congress – something Nancy Pelosi herself would certainly not approve of.