Pelosi Plans Ahead

Posted May 13, 2003 at 6:42pm

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is making clear she has no political ambitions beyond being Speaker and plans to have the chamber back into Democratic hands within the next two election cycles.

Pelosi, in a wide-ranging interview four months into her tenure as Democratic leader, stated firmly that she will not seek any other elected office in her lifetime. Providing House Democrats with a leader devoted fully to their interests, she said, is critical to the party’s success.

“My focus is 100 percent here,” Pelosi stressed. “I think it will help us and will help Members trust the decisions I make for them. My ambitions are for them.”

The new Minority Leader insisted her goals are not personal, but rather for the party she serves.

“The idea is not to make me Speaker, but to have a Democratic Speaker,” she said, gesturing to the Capitol space she now occupies. “This is the office of [former Speaker] Tip O’Neill [D-Mass.]. It was the Speaker’s office. I want to return it to the option of being the Speaker’s office.”

Pelosi’s plan for doing so includes a two- to four-year strategy focused squarely on creating a unified party message and cultivating a grassroots campaign effort. A strategy that hones in only on the current election cycle won’t be successful, she said.

“We have a two- to four-year plan,” she said. “This is a long haul.”

“Now,” she was quick to caution, “I fully intend to win the House back for the Democrats this time. But I want to do so in a way that consolidates the victory to retain it for the next two years — two to four to six — so that then we are in solid.”

Pelosi, praised by allies for her keen political instincts, declined to reveal the details of her strategy, but said there are plenty of Republican districts in which incumbents haven’t been challenged by a strong, well-organized Democrat.

“We need to choose races very carefully and put [to use] our resources in a substantial way, and in sufficient amounts, to win,” she said.

Pelosi said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee must raise an average of $100,000 a day, or at least $60 million, this cycle. But she readily acknowledges that money alone will not do the job. Never again, she said, will Democrats go through an election cycle without a unified theme.

“As much time as you have, as much resources as you can bring in, I would say to my colleagues: Time is message and message is support,” she said. “Unless we have a message, it’s not possible to get support. They have to be motivated to give to you and the message is the inspiration.”

Pelosi said that when she sought the role of leader last year she made a vow to her fellow Democrats: “I told them never again will Democrats go into a campaign where we don’t have a message as to who we are and what we stand for, how we are different from Republicans and how we differ from Republicans.

“They liked that, and it’s what I believe,” she said. “So, we will have a national message.”

Pelosi was reluctant to compare her approach in any way to that of her predecessor Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), whom she called a “tremendous leader.” Pelosi will lead dozens of her House colleagues in endorsing Gephardt’s presidential bid.

Her style isn’t one of giving greater attention to Members than did Gephardt, Pelosi insisted. If there is that feeling in the Caucus, she said, it’s only because “I think that always happens with new leadership.”

“I think if they are saying they feel freshly attended to and the rest, then I appreciate that, but I’m sure they were very well-attended to under Leader Gephardt,” Pelosi said, careful not to point fingers regarding her party’s failure to make more progress in recent elections.

Some Democrats, however, have said Gephardt bore some blame for their failure in November by focusing too heavily on his presidential ambitions and not enough on winning back the House. Gephardt stepped down as leader shortly after the midterm elections, clearing the way for Pelosi to seek the post from her launching pad as Whip.

Along with other Democratic leaders, Pelosi has made the Republicans’ handling of the economy the centerpiece of their communications’ effort.

Pelosi has called the administration’s approach to tax cuts reckless and irresponsible. And she, along with other Democrats, has put forth alternatives to those proposals, including two economic stimulus plans and a budget plan, something they failed to do in the previous session.

The Minority Leader is confident yet pragmatic about House Democrats’ chances for winning in 2004, recognizing the difficulty of gaining the 12 seats needed for a takeover. That is double what they needed before the 2002 elections brought a major setback for the party.

“I hear what you are saying because, quite frankly, when we were at six, that seems so easy now,” she said, laughing. “I could take a day off, I could go to bed at midnight.

“For us, 12 will require a great deal more work, and a great deal of cooperation from the Caucus.”

Getting that cooperation begins with making Democrats stakeholders in decisions, whether it is by advancing junior Members to prominent slots or delegating assignments, she said. What’s more, Pelosi said, as a new leader she’s tried to make her office an information clearinghouse for Members, specifically on message and communications strategy.

“That’s so when we have an issue, we have a message around that issue and it will echo,” she said. “We will have a drumbeat across America in terms of how our office can help communicate that message and how we communicate with each other and the American people.”

Whether or not the Democratic message is resonating with voters, Pelosi certainly is capturing a following. As the highest-ranking woman in Congressional history, she admits to getting fan mail and being stopped on the street and in airports for pictures or handshakes.

It wasn’t attention she sought or expected, she said.

“It’s more and more and more, and I have to get used to it,” she said. “It was something I never thought of. I never thought to say, ‘I need another half-hour before we break to have some time’” to meet well-wishers.

But Pelosi said she’s taking it in stride and hopes to be setting an example for other women interested in seeking political office. She hopes to do that through her own success as a leader, by encouraging others to run for positions and helping women expand their role in shaping the debate.

“I hope that by example and the way I conduct myself in this job, I hope it will open doors for women to move ahead in the political arena,” she said.

She has also worked to put aside divisions in the Caucus.

Her onetime political adversary, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), is now on the same team, she said. Pelosi defeated Hoyer nearly two years ago for the Whip job, which Hoyer subsequently won without opposition when Pelosi sought the job as leader.

When asked about how the two interact these days, Pelosi said simply: “We just work.

“I have no hard feelings,” she added. “You run your own race and you don’t bother looking back because you are going to lose your aerodynamics. That’s so yesterday.”

Pelosi said that these days all the leaders work together with the goal of taking back the House, crediting, among others, Hoyer, Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.), Vice Chairman James Clyburn (S.C.) and Assistant to the Minority Leader John Spratt (S.C.).

“It’s like a tennis match,” she said. “If you keep thinking about the shot you should have done differently you aren’t going to be too good on the shots coming up. We really have to be going in a forward direction.”