Pelosi makes history, and enemies, as an effective House speaker

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is cheered after the House passed the health-care bill. Republicans laud her effectiveness even as they decry her politics.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi is cheered after the House passed the health-care bill. Republicans laud her effectiveness even as they decry her politics. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is so unpopular in some places that she often avoids public appearances. During a recent House recess, she hopscotched across the country, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars at closed-door fundraisers, turning up in public only at the White House and in her hometown of San Francisco.

But under the Capitol dome, Pelosi is a towering figure, perhaps even a historic one. Capped by her central role in passing the landmark health-care bill in March, the California Democrat, 70, has transformed herself from the caricature of a millionaire liberal with impeccable fashion taste into a speaker on par with the revered Sam Rayburn, according to historians, pollsters and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Republicans betting on her unpopularity outside of Washington have made the speaker the face of their effort to retake the House this fall, asking donors to "Fire Nancy Pelosi" while showing images of her engulfed in flames. The first tests of that strategy will come later this month with the GOP trying to win two seats long held by Democrats in special elections in Pennsylvania and Hawaii.

But Pelosi girded for this fight years ago, when she outlined a four-step plan for a lasting Democratic control of the House. The first two steps came with winning the majority in 2006 and expanding it in 2008.

While hoping for big Democratic gains in the 2012 presidential election cycle, the goal this year is merely to "sustain" the majority. With the economy limping along, Democrats are bracing for deep losses but cannot afford to lose more than 40 seats. Pelosi said she's ready for the fight.

"You're in the arena. And when you're in the arena, you know that someone's going to throw a punch. And if you decide to throw a punch, you'd better be ready to take one, too," she said. "There's a lot at stake."

Influential leader

Young Nancy D'Alesandro first took note of the speaker's power on a trip to Ocean City, when her father, the influential mayor of Baltimore, had to pull the family car over for a passing motorcade. "It was the speaker coming through. Oh my God, the speaker of the House," Pelosi recalled about Rayburn's entourage.

Some historians list her alongside Rayburn and his successor, John W. McCormack, as among the most influential speakers in the annals of Congress. The two men reigned for a combined 27 years, through World War II, the early days of the Cold War, the passage of civil rights laws and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.

Voters have taken notice of Pelosi as well.

Shortly after the health-care bill's passage, Democratic pollster Peter Hart gathered a dozen people in Sacramento who had voted for President Obama. Asked for one word to describe various leaders, Hart said, the voters had the following replies about Pelosi: strong, shrewd, a leader, powerful, persistent.

The voters told the pollster that Obama lacks the political toughness of former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, and that they think Pelosi is "the yin to Obama's yang," Hart said. "She complemented him and essentially makes him a better leader and a better president. . . . They saw Nancy Pelosi as providing Barack Obama with the qualities he didn't have himself."

Republicans who used to criticize her as an out-of-touch West Coast liberal now say she rules the House with an iron fist. They say voters paid close attention to the complicated legislative process that led to final passage of the health-care bill.

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