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Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics: A Review

05 May

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, is not one to generate lukewarm feelings in people. On the contrary, Speaker Pelosi is someone you either love or hate. Of course, the reasons you do so may differ. In fact, they may not even be accurate. As the highest ranking woman in politics (the Speaker follows the Vice President in the line of succession to the President), Pelosi is an easy target for everyone whether or not they support her. But who is this woman? How did she come into power? How has she used the power of her office? These are the broad questions addressed by Ronald M. Peters, Jr. and Cindy Simon Rosenthal in their new book Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics (Oxford University Press).

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=wrighto-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0195383737&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrPeters and Rosenthal coin the phrase “new American politics” to define a political culture dominated by the actions and interactions of five key elements: partisanship, money, organization, technology, and representation. They place their analysis of Pelosi squarely within that context.

Since 1789, women have represented only 2% of all members of Congress, and a third of that number recently arrived on the scene with the 110th Congress. For Nancy Pelosi to even be elected to Congress, then, is a rarity. For her to rise to the rank of Speaker, which she did in 2007, is almost inconceivable. In fact, she is the first and only woman ever to have done so. It helps that she is a liberal, because Democratic women outnumber Republican women in Congress by a margin of 2 to 1. It helps that she comes from a political family–her father Thomas D’Alesandro was a member of Congress for 8 years and the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland for another 12. It helps that she has strong support on both the east coast and the west coast of the United States as a result of her relocating to the liberal district of San Francisco, California. But these are only some of the factors that explain how Pelosi came to power.

Pelosi’s real strength, according to Peters and Rosenthal, is her ability to fundraise like none other. Raising money for herself and others allowed her to network, to build allegiances, to gain favor with other members of the House who would eventually elect her Speaker by secret ballot. According to the authors, loyalty–both to Democratic party ideals and individual members of the party–is another of her core attributes. In fact, they claim that “competency, loyalty, and diversity” are the “three principles [that] appear to have guided her decision-making” about who would be appointed to various committee posts. In short, Pelosi was faithful to the party and its members through fundraising, which got her into the Speaker’s chair. Once there, she repaid the favor, and further entrenched herself among the Democratic elite.

As Speaker, Pelosi has been in the role of both adversary (to the Bush Administration) and ally (to the Obama Administration). She has reached out to moderate Democrats by leading the effort to successfully reinstate pay-as-you-go rules in the House. In advancing her agenda, she relied on “three essential strategies: control, compromise, and sequencing.” She took a stand against the Iraq war, but was unable to change the outcome of the vote. Still, her efforts at framing the troop surge as unnecessary while still demonstrating love of country and support for America’s troops were successful. She did not compromise her principles. The authors report similar stories about the oil crisis, the economic recession, and health care reform.

Personally, I wished that the book would have spoken  more about health care reform, as this will go down in history as one of Speaker Pelosi’s most monumental achievements. In fact, it might be the defining success of her career. Unfortunately, the book was written a bit prematurely, and the final fate of reform had yet to be decided. Consequently, I expect the authors to release a revised edition with expanded discussion of Speaker Pelosi’s role in guiding health reform through Congress to be written before too long.

The role of the Speaker has changed, say Peters and Rosenthal. Speakers are party leaders now, and they must focus their efforts not only on running the party’s agenda in Congress, but in enhancing the party’s power by helping candidates win elections. Pelosi has done this masterfully, they claim, in no small part because of her enormous success at fundraising. In fact, she herself claims to “have the biggest base of supporters, individual supporters, of anybody in the Congress.” History seems to support her claim, as she has steered the Democrats to reclaim the majority in both chambers.

Peters and Rosenthal’s  book is thoroughly researched. The authors consult multiple sources, conduct numerous interviews with key informants, cite newspaper articles, and even bring in the peer-reviewed political science literature when appropriate. This is a book that is intellectually rigorous, that would withstand scholarly examination, but that is also a captivating read for just about anyone who wonders how a political career is made and what goes on behind the scenes on Capitol Hill. By the authors’ own acknowledgment, a final assessment of Pelosi will have to wait until she leaves office, but to date, they judge her efforts as a marked success, albeit one of the most partisan of any Speaker of the House. Of course, I think that easily explains why she draws so much praise from half of the population and so much condemnation from the other half. Only one thing is certain: Hers is an unprecedented career and one worth reading about.

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Posted by on May 5, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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