Pelosi Passes Early Tests of Leadership With High Marks

Posted March 28, 2003 at 4:50pm

She’s a liberal San Francisco Democrat as well as the House Minority Leader, but so far Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) seems to be emphasizing the “leader” rather than the “liberal.” [IMGCAP(1)]

While Republican insiders couldn’t control their glee when Pelosi replaced Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) as House Democrats’ leader, the California Congresswoman has not led as the ultraliberal firebrand that some on the right expected.

Indeed, it was Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), not Pelosi, who leveled the strongest criticism at the White House over President Bush’s Iraq policy. “Ironically, compared to Daschle, she is the one who seemed statesmanlike in her reaction to military action,” one Democratic Party insider chuckled.

Pelosi drew criticism from the left after she helped short-circuit Democratic opposition to a resolution expressing Congress’ support for the president and for American forces in Iraq.

As a backbencher, she could have acted as a megaphone for the views of her constituents in California’s 8th district and for liberals nationally. And she probably would have joined Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) in refusing to vote for the measure. But Pelosi now has other concerns and interests.

“She’s viscerally with them, but she has to follow a different line as leader of the Caucus,” a Democratic Capitol Hill insider said approvingly.

The House Democratic leader has also handled the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee more delicately than some party operatives had expected.

Pelosi has long been critical of the DCCC (and implicitly of two of the men who have made many of the strategic decisions for the campaign committee in recent years, Gephardt and Texas Rep. Martin Frost), contrasting Democratic successes in her home state with the DCCC’s failure to retake the House, particularly in 2000.

But instead of tearing down the committee and building it up from scratch in her own image, the California Congresswoman has adopted a more balanced approach. She refused to give in to pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, which wanted her to select Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson to head the campaign committee, but also resisted tapping rival Frost, a two-time DCCC chairman, to run the committee again.

Pelosi’s selection of Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.) has been widely praised as a savvy compromise, and she approved the hiring of well-credentialed staffers who have a history of working closely with Gephardt and Frost.

DCCC Political Director Peter Cari, who has been at the committee for years, is viewed as a “Frost person,” while Communications Director Kori Bernards came over from Gephardt’s operation. The committee’s new press secretary, Greg Speed, worked for Frost at IMPAC 2000, and redistricting and targeting guru Mark Gersh, who has worked with the DCCC and Gephardt for many cycles, continues to be a key strategist for the committee.

“I give her a lot of credit for being willing to reach out beyond her own circle to hire these people,” acknowledged one Democratic operative who is not a Pelosi ally.

The Congresswoman, of course, still has her share of critics. Some complain that she doesn’t understand the need to move the party to the middle and doesn’t deserve a lot of credit for getting most House Democrats to vote for the recent war resolution.

“Supporting the troops after a war has begun is about as easy as it gets, and she made it really, really hard,” one Democrat said.

Others express concern about her relationship with colleagues in the party leadership, such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). Said one observer: “It’s not nearly as smooth as you’d like.”

Sometimes it’s as important to be lucky as it is to be good, and timing has been on Pelosi’s side. She became leader after the 2002 elections, a low point in Democratic fortunes, and has brought energy and discipline to a Caucus that had grown cynical.

“Dick was appreciated, but Members were really ready for change. Just having a new face [as leader] was a plus. She has energized them and given them some confidence,” said one Democrat who knows all of the players.

Pelosi is also helped by the nation’s economic problems and the president’s controversial tax cut and prescription drug initiatives, all of which have weakened Bush.

While a handful of Democrats on Capitol Hill continue to attack the president’s Iraq policy, Pelosi has wisely argued for restraint. She knows her party can’t afford to be on the wrong side of a successful military effort and Democrats would inevitably benefit if the war in Iraq goes poorly and public opposition grows.

But whatever Pelosi’s successes so far, she’ll be tested again and again as the nation moves toward the 2004 elections. While she is living up to her reputation as a strong fundraiser, the Congresswoman must be realistic about the party’s uphill electoral prospects, not allowing opponents to tie her fate to whether Democrats win control of the House or even gain Congressional seats.

Pelosi’s real test will come if the war ends successfully and the economy rallies. Then we’ll see what kind of leader she really is.