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Outlook: Why it took a woman to fix health care

Vince Bzdek
Editor, The Washington Post
Monday, March 29, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post editor Vince Bzdek was online Monday, March 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled 'Why did health-care reform pass? Nancy Pelosi was in charge.'

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Vince Bzdek: Good morning. Thanks for joining me to discuss the recent Outlook article on Nancy Pelosi's role in passing healthcare legislation. I'd be glad to take questions on Pelosi, the healthcare bill and the role of women in politics. It's a fascinating time in Washington now, so fire away!

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Is is true that Pelosi grew up in a household with brothers? What is the impact, if any, on women who are raised with brothers or "like a boy",. It's my personal view (impression) that such women have an advantage in politics and business. What are your thoughts on this idea?

Vince Bzdek: Yes, Nancy Pelosi was the only girl in her family, which included five brothers. She told me it was a huge advantage in that she learned how to work very effectively with men. That was important in Congress, which is still mostly male. She's always been comfortable, as a result, working with alpha male-type personalities. Two of her closest allies in Congress were pretty macho guys: George Miller and the late John Murtha.

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washingtonpost.com: Why did health-care reform pass? Nancy Pelosi was in charge. (Post, March 28)

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Freising, Germany: Regarding the psychology of consensus and one-on-one conversations, I'd thought that Pelosi was quite a tough negotiator. Is it possible to practice the psychology of consensus and be tough at the same time?

Vince Bzdek: Nancy Pelosi is an extremely tough negotiator, but she told me she tries to never let those negotiations harm the long-range relationships she has with people. She tries to put the relationship first, she said.

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Houston, Tex.: So it wasn't "until a woman ascended to a key position of power in Washington" that a health-care plan actually passed? To which sex did Hillary Clinton belong? Or doesn't she count as a woman in a key position of power? She certainly thought she was in a key position. Remember her famous claim, "WE are the president"?

Vince Bzdek: You know, I would argue that Hillary Clinton wasn't in a key position of power in the view of most of the country, and that was the problem. People thought the way she went about her effort, as first lady, was presumptuous, and that she didn't reach out to people to build a coalition around her program. Pelosi was in a much more central position of power, and because she had earned her way to that leadership position during 20 tough years in Congress, she had the trust of her colleagues. Hillary didn't.

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Vail, Colo.: Could you tell me how the catholic nuns came to support the health care bill. Do you know how that came about. Was Nancy Pelosi involved?

Vince Bzdek: Pelosi wasn't directly involved, but she does come from a strong Roman Catholic tradition, and hasn't been afraid to take on the Church on some issues. I believe that provided inspiration for the nuns. Pelosi believes women ought to be priests, for example. When she was young, she wanted to be a priest when she grew up. When her mom finally told her she couldn't, she said, "OK, I'll go into politics instead."

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi Vince -- Thanks for taking our questions today. It seems to me that Speaker Pelosi doesn't always project a very good image when she's in front of the cameras, but does that really matter, given her success behind the scenes? In other words, is that what this job is really about -- getting legislation passed -- rather than being the "public face" of the House? By comparison, Gingrich was very good at the "PR" aspect of the job, but we all remember how that eventually turned out.

Vince Bzdek: You know, I gotta agree with you that Pelosi isn't at her best in front of the camera. She's a backroom player -- Rahm Emanuel calls her the best he's ever seen. I have to agree with you that it's a little bit refreshing that one of the key players in Washington isn't a master of sound-bite politics. If more politicians had actual conversations with each other, rather that hurled sound bites at each other, I can't help but think we'd have a better political dialogue. And maybe a more civil one as well.

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Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada: Really great article. From what I've been reading, Pelosi has been getting lots of credit and kudos from President Obama and congressional leaders (Republican and Democratic) for making the legislation happen. That's a huge victory in and of itself.

I'm wondering if more of the Democratic caucus of the House, especially men, are coming on board Pelosi's goal of elevating "human" issues to the status of "important things we should actually address through legislation"?

washingtonpost.com: Outlook: 'Woman of the House: The rise of Nancy Pelosi' (Post, March 28)

Vince Bzdek: I've been watching closely since Pelosi became speaker, and she's made a real effort to bring her fellow Democrats along on those human issues. She even labeled her first session of Congress as speaker, from 2006-2008, the Children's Congress. I do think she's widened the conversation in Congress about what the highest priorities ought to be. And traditionally, Democrats focus more on social issues like healthcare, and President Obama is very much focused on human issues himself, so yes, I think you're are seeing a recalibration of priorities in Washington.

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Burlington, Vt.: While your article strongly states that women are better at certain things than men are -- like collaboration and negotiation -- I must tell you that I can't quite accept that you really believe that. I most certainly agree with your claims, but articles of this kind have become so common it seems as though male journalists all over the country are suggesting that the country would be better off if Congress was composed entirely of women. Your article sounds just a little as though you are repeating what you know people want to hear.

If you really have solid reason to believe that women are better than some things than men are, surely you will be comfortable admitting that men are better at some things than women are, and telling us what they are? Too often nowadays, it is deemed acceptable for men to extol the abilities of women over men without reciprocating, as though women are ticking time bombs who will start screaming irrationally if someone says that they generally aren't as good as something as men are. Being a woman who has been subjected to this kind of timidness myself, I can heartily say it is nearly as insulting as the belief that women are incompetent.

If you are earnest in your belief about the value of women's abilities and that trying to adopt some female tactics will help Congress as a body, surely you can tell us what us women aren't so good at, so that we can adopt those traits as well and shed our image as specialized minorities, possibly leading to a great acceptance and willingness to vote women into office.

Vince Bzdek: I love this question. Let me just say quickly that I'm no expert on the subject of gender and politics, but I did dozens of interviews with women about leadership, and the majority felt there are serious differences in the way men and women lead. The one woman leader who disagreed with that told me that women are more collaborative leaders because they've had to be to get to the top. They've had to lead from the "foot of the table" to get to the "head of the table." Pelosi told me once that she thinks women leaders are sometimes too inclusive, soliciting too many opinions when they sometimes just need to go with their gut and make a choice. So yea, I think there are things men do better. But if you have a representative form of government, seems to me you want the government to reflect your population as much as possible.

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Rockville, Md.: Works with the guys?

I have seen several times in public where she pulled away from Harry Reid and glared at him. He responded with a look of utter bewilderment.

What was that about?

Vince Bzdek: I think "works with guys" includes a certain comfort level with telling them off, as well. Pelosi doesn't seem to get intimidated very easily

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Kiev, Ukraine: Could the bill be declared unconstitutional after an individual lawsuit (against the government, for breach of liberty or any other reason)?

Vince Bzdek: Thirteen governors around the country have filed lawsuits arguing just that. Similar challenges like this in the past, when states have challenged the federal government's authority, have generally been decided in favor of the federal government. But who knows?

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Stockholm, Sweden: Thanks for your article "It took a woman", Mr Bzdek. I appreciated it very much.

May I ask you to point out the three, in your mind, most important differences between Ms Pelosi and Ms Palin as politicians? (For all practical purposes, I think Ms Palin must still be counted as a politician.)

Vince Bzdek: 1. Pelosi is a consummate Washington insider, and Palin positioned herself as the ultimate outsider.

2. Palin went far politically on her image. She was the everywoman of the West, someone people wanted to live next door to. The concern people had on closer inspection was substance and judgment. People liked her, but weren't sure about her experience. Pelosi, on the other hand, has more of a negative image, coming across as elitist, standoffish, wealthy background. However, whether you agree with her or not, it seemed as if her political concepts were mature and well-formed.

3. Pelosi and Palin both brought family issues to the fore of the country's consciousness. People feel more free to comment on the values women politicians display in their homes. Palin brought teen pregnancy and working mom issues into the national conversation because she was living through them. Pelosi talked about them more in an abstract, issues-oriented way.

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Thirteen governors around the country have filed lawsuits : You mean attorneys general. Some of their governors opposed the waste of taxpayer money.

Vince Bzdek: sorry about that, meant attorneys generals. thanks for the correction!

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Fairfax County, Va.: During 2008, people kept debating Hillary Clinton's failed run for president, noting that there are few likely female candidates, except possibly Sarah Palin, for president in the near future, and generally claiming that women face a glass ceiling in U.S. politics. I have never understood why all the articles, comments, and even a full book on the subject totally ignored Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker, third in line to the presidency, and, as shown this past week, the most powerful woman in American government. To me, Pelosi and her career track have always been very inspiring. Why do you think she hasn't been given her due as a powerful female pioneer (almost treated as invisible, like "Mr. Cellophane" in the musical Chicago) until now? Is it because she hasn't really made gender a part of her public persona?

Vince Bzdek: I think it has more to do with her position as speaker. The president and vice president get much more attention on the national stage, but Congress is really where the action is. Pelosi told me once that most people don't even know what a speaker does. But it'll be interesting to watch her over time. She has certainly gotten a lot more press attention for this. Those of us who work in Washington know that she has one of the most powerful positions in the country.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Has Nancy Pelosi ever commented on how she hopes or expects history to record her career? Would she rather be remembered for what she accomplished or is she looking forward to being remembered as a path setter for females in politics?

Vince Bzdek: She told me that, more than anything, she wants to be an inspiration to young girls. She hopes that her election as speaker and the record she accumulates will inspire more girls to get into public service. I take her at her word.

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Hayward, Calif.: After reading your fine article, I'm going to read your book. Is it on Kindle?

Vince Bzdek: Yes, thank much. Send me a comment after you've read it.

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washingtonpost.com: Woman of the House

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Woburn, Mass.: I have become a great fan of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and I would assume that she has many other fans after passing this historic legislation, so why does the press always show her as hated? I think she is one of our greatest leaders.

Vince Bzdek: I do think there is till a bit of gender bias. My colleague Anne Kornblut thinks there's just something in our national myth about self-reliance that bridles against the idea of women as strong leaders. I also think Pelosi is threatening to some people precisely because she is effective. She gets things done, and the things she wants to get done are Democratic priorities. And she is very tough. A few Congressmen I spoke with said that you do not want to get on her bad side.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm a liberal who has been very much in favor of health-care reform. I also have the experience of paying my mother's $200,000 medical bills when she died of cancer at age 64.

Some of the accolades toward Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi bother me. When the process of putting together a bill for health care was started, she led the Democrats into closed door sessions so the Republicans could not be part of a solution. I don't understand the accolades, even though I know Ms. Pelosi kept the Democrats together. Don't her initial actions show her to be a poor leader ?

Vince Bzdek: I think this is a fair criticism. This was not a bipartisan bill. Some of my colleagues at the Post believe that, if Ted Kennedy were still alive, he would have been able to forge a more bipartisan bill. Pelosi's answer to those criticisms has been that President Obama reached out to Republicans and was shut down, and that the bill would have fallen apart altogether if she didn't keep her caucus unified.

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Vince Bzdek: I'm afraid my time has run out, but thanks for all your great questions. Wish I'd been able to answer them all. I'm sure this conversation will continue in other forums, so let me just salute you for your interest and participation. All my best, Vince Bzdek

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