Updated: Jan 4, 2022
Oct. 16, 2015
WASHINGTON — Through wrenching votes on issues that enraged the left — the bank bailout, the Iraq War, health care reform, abortion, gun control and many other controversies — never did notoriously fractious House Democrats under Nancy Pelosi’s leadership come close to the anarchy now engulfing House Republicans.
As the House GOP founders in a power vacuum opened by Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy’s recent withdrawal from the race for House speaker, the San Francisco Democrat mocked by the right as an archetypal liberal has won grudging respect from even hard-core Republicans, even if they won’t say so publicly.
“You have got to give Pelosi full credit,” said a former House aide who still works closely with the Republican caucus and could not speak freely for fear of losing his access. “She is an incredibly tough adversary and she knows how to use power, and she doesn't lose very often in her conference.”
The longest-serving Democratic leader since legendary Texan Sam Rayburn, Pelosi was speaker from 2007 to 2011 and minority leader before and since. She has had advantages. Left-wing Democrats were never as militant as today’s crop of Tea Party conservatives. As speaker, Pelosi worked with a president of her own party, and Democrats believe in government, making governance easier.
Yet the issues that could have divided Democrats were no less contentious than those now splintering Republicans. Political players on both sides credit Pelosi’s success to a strategy rooted in consensus building, set in the context of larger cultural forces that have sown mayhem among House Republicans and roiled the GOP presidential contest.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., arrive for a news conference to discuss budget negotiations, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats Thursday blocked the Senate from turning to a $78 billion spending measure for the Department of Veterans Affairs and military base construction. They and the White House argue that it's part of an overall GOP budget framework that shortchanges spending on other domestic programs. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Never a great communicator, Pelosi does have the unimpeachable credentials of a San Francisco liberal, giving her “credibility on the left,” said former Martinez Rep. George Miller, who served as Pelosi’s right-hand man until he retired last year. When cutting deals, she was able to hold her left flank and stave off the mutinies now plaguing Republicans.
Take single-payer health care, a cherished goal of liberals who were furious when President Obama rejected a nationalized system in favor of the more market-based Affordable Care Act.
“My whole life I’ve been campaigning for single payer,” Miller said. “But when push came to shove, if I really wanted national health care, it wasn’t going to happen through single payer. Clearly the Senate wasn't going to do that.”
On the other side were “Blue Dog” conservative Democrats, many of them antiabortion, who could have torpedoed the Affordable Care Act with any one of multiple rebellions over a provision in the proposed law to provide abortion coverage to women who received federal subsidies. A devout Catholic, Pelosi found herself battling her own church on the issue. She maneuvered through each minefield, not by force, but by a relentless inclusion that involved letting everyone have their say.
“She had meetings after meetings with all the diverse Democratic groups,” said former Rep. Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma. “It was very important that it wasn’t done behind closed doors. She was at the table, believe me.”
Miller described Pelosi’s strategy as “a series of concentric circles,” where she would sell an idea first to one group, then to a larger one, and on and on, “so everybody is in the play. And you get multiple chances to make your case.”
Contrast with Boehner
The approach contrasts with that of retiring Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who repeatedly punished members of the Republican caucus who failed to fall in line. Rebels were stripped of committee chairmanships and assignments and suffered other retributions that operatives in both parties said created permanent enemies among the new cadre of conservatives already inclined toward rebellion.
“You build up a gulag archipelago,” said the former GOP aide, now a lobbyist. “Punishment is never going to work. It builds forces that created the Freedom Caucus,” the bloc of several dozen conservatives who deposed Boehner, thwarted McCarthy and now are making election of a new leader appear impossible.
Boehner also surrounded himself with a cadre of a dozen or so members, yielding plans that the rank and file had not bought into and leading to embarrassing failures on floor votes and then to compromises with Democrats that only deepened conservative anger.
With Pelosi, Miller said, it wasn’t about “imposing a deal. I’m talking about spending hours to negotiate it, back and forth, back and forth. I spent a lot of time with Nancy, and you’re talking about midnight ... you’re talking about 5:30 the next morning, you’re talking about daytime, you’re talking about weekends.”
Getting things done didn’t always work out politically. Many Blue Dogs lost their seats to Republicans, and Pelosi lost the speakership.
Sticks as well as carrots
Pelosi is not above using sticks. Few things angered liberals more than the Iraq War, and few members opposed it more than Woolsey.
Woolsey said when she first voted against a military funding bill, the late Rep. Jack Murtha, a close Pelosi ally and chairman of a subcommittee controlling military appropriations, threatened to remove $10 million budgeted for her district to convert the former Fort Cronkhite military base into part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Murtha “came right up to me and he said, ‘You change that and change it right now or I’m taking that money out of there,’” Woolsey recalled. “So I did change it, because I knew how important that was to my district.” She did the same the following year.
“The third year, I knew I just couldn’t” vote for war funding, Woolsey said. She said she had gotten $20 million for the base conversion “and that was all I was going to do.” She said Pelosi told her she could not support appropriating the rest of the money for her district.
In the end, Pelosi found votes for the defense bill somewhere else, and Woolsey got the money for the park conversion anyway.
Pelosi’s toughest vote came during the 2008 financial crisis, when then-President George W. Bush asked almost overnight for an emergency bank bailout costing an eye-popping $700 billion. The legislation, known as TARP, was toxic in both parties, but especially repugnant to Democrats, who felt they were being asked to clean up a mess created by Republicans.
The deal was for then-Minority Leader Boehner to deliver 100 Republican votes and for Pelosi to deliver 120 Democrats. Boehner failed, the legislation failed, and the stock market plunged by 740 points. On a second vote, Pelosi delivered more Democrats and Boehner never reached his target. The bailout was approved, and was mostly paid back. It ended up costing $37 billion.
“She’s a much savvier insider, understanding the legislative process but also the psyche of her members, than we’ve seen in a lot of speakers and a lot of party leaders,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
Still, Ornstein said, “It’s not like she’s a master and Boehner has been a doofus.”
Ornstein points to larger outside forces at play, too. Democratic voters favor compromise, whereas Republicans believe it is better to stand on principle.
Conservative House members, he said, “ feel seduced and abandoned,” because McCarthy and others who recruited them promised that a Republican majority could enact a deeply conservative agenda, despite such obvious institutional hurdles as Obama’s veto and Democratic filibusters in the Senate.
Most important, Ornstein said, is what he called the “extremely powerful and important tribal media” of conservative talk show hosts and bloggers who shun compromise.
“Whether it is Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or Laura Ingraham or Erick Erickson, along with all the other bloggers and the closed information loop they get into,” Ornstein said, conservative media generate anger among voters who are led to believe that elected officials are caving to Obama.
“You don't have a left-wing media that comes anywhere close to the resonance and impact of the right-wing tribal media,” Ornstein said. “If you did, Pelosi’s task would have been much harder.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead