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Nancy Pelosi, undone by her own success

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, November 5, 2010

Losing elections is an occupational hazard for politicians, so there's no need to get all weepy about the Democratic officeholders who suddenly find themselves with more time to spend with their families. It would be more appropriate to shed a tear or two for the future of the country, what with the Tea Party brigade coming to town. Then again, I was pretty gloomy after the 1994 midterms, and yet it turned out that the world did not end.

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President Obama still has the ability to set the nation's agenda - and also the power of the veto, in case of emergency. Harry Reid is still Senate majority leader - and after the way he punched and scrapped his way to victory, who wants to mess with him? As for John Boehner, he'll soon learn that his new job requires a more extensive vocabulary than "no."

But amid the wreckage of Tuesday's GOP rampage, there's one person for whom I feel awful: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She's losing her job not because she does it poorly but because she does it so well.

Pelosi would never ask for, or even accept, my sympathy - that's not her style. Her place in history was secure the moment she became the first woman to take possession of the speaker's gavel. Still, she squeezed every drop out of her four-year tenure. To string together a couple of sports cliches, she came to play and she left it all on the field.

I regret that the nation has never come to know the actual Nancy Pelosi. Most Americans are probably familiar only with the caricature that her political opponents sketched - the effete "San Francisco liberal" who knew nothing of America outside her mink-lined cocoon, where the taps ran with Chablis and nourishment consisted of unpronounceable French cheeses, served up on silver platters by waiters who were certainly gay, and quite possibly married.

That's not the Nancy Pelosi known to anyone who has ever met her. While the term "San Francisco liberal" is accurate, it's also true that she grew up - and learned the rough-and-tumble of politics - in gritty Baltimore. Her father, Tommy D'Alesandro, was a legendary "Charm City" mayor and political boss. Her education in how to count votes, and keep them counted, began at a young age.

When she appears before the cameras, Pelosi often seems stiff and almost brittle. In person, she's warm and engaging - also funny, earthy and just plain good company. She tells a great story. She turns a mean phrase. Colleagues on Capitol Hill almost universally describe her as a good boss and simply a good person.

It was frustrating to hear Republicans demonize her in their thunderous public statements, then confess privately that they really liked her. Ain't politics grand?

And demonize her they did. In their midterm campaign, Republicans attacked Pelosi more often, and more brutally, than they attacked Obama. They made her the living embodiment of Evil Washington, or of limousine socialism, or of whatever alleged plagues that Democrats were supposedly visiting upon the body politic.

The GOP was able to make Pelosi an issue only because she was so effective as speaker. Obama came to office with a long, ambitious agenda. Pelosi had a big majority to work with in the House, but it was ideologically diverse - Blue Dogs, progressives, everything in between. Somehow, she managed to deliver.

Some of the votes she won looked impossible. On health-care reform, there appeared to be no way the House could ever be persuaded to pass the more conservative bill that had passed the Senate. At one point, she told me she could find only "maybe a dozen votes" for the measure. But she and Reid managed to find a workable set of modifications - and a clever parliamentary maneuver to pull the whole thing off.

I was at the Capitol that day when the House passed the landmark health-care bill. Tea Party groups were protesting outside, egged on by Republican members of Congress who came out onto a balcony and led the catcalls.

Pelosi did what was right for the country, and what's right isn't always what's popular. Democrats may decide they need a less-polarizing figure as minority leader; if they do, well, that's politics. But I'd love to see her stay in the Democratic leadership - and I'm betting that eventually she'd find a way to take back the gavel that she pounds with such righteous authority.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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