Serving at a time of strong party polarization in Congress, Pelosi has had less opportunity to demonstrate such leadership. But she has been willing to permit the House to pass measures opposed by a majority of her own party, ranging from funding for the war in Iraq to limits on insurance coverage for abortion. And in her own autobiography, she notes ONeills bipartisan work to save Social Security as one reason that he is the Speaker she admires the most.
Pelosi, then, appears to be a strong candidate for historical greatness. But there is one other important feature of many great Speakers that Pelosi has not yet had a chance to demonstrate: critical leadership at the end of ones tenure. For instance, less than a year before his death, Rayburn managed to win a tough floor fight against southern conservative Democrats, limiting their influence on the Rules Committee the beginning of the end of their dominance in Congress. And in his last year in office, ONeill narrowly blocked a major funding proposal for the Nicaraguan Contras, delivering a major defeat to the Reagan White House.
Of course, Pelosis speakership is not finished yet. If she can turn the passage of health care into an enduring basis of power for future legislative victories, she could well ensure her place among the great Speakers of history.
Matthew Green is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Catholic University of America and author of the forthcoming book The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership.