The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The people’s house: A new beginning

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brings down the gavel after being elected during the beginning of the 116th U.S. Congress on Thursday. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

There was brightness and even joy in the House of Representatives from the new Democratic caucus and those looking for some relief from the fear, nastiness and anger of the Trump presidency. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) beamed as she was nominated, declared the winner and welcomed to the podium, as well as throughout her opening address to the House she now leads — one with a record number of female representatives. One cannot help but contrast it with that rainy inaugural day when the new president gave what was probably the darkest and meanest inaugural address in history. (“That was some weird s---,” former president George W. Bush allegedly said.)

While President Trump spoke of “American carnage” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation," Pelosi spoke of the majesty of democracy, and with optimism. “We enter this new Congress with a sense of great hope and confidence for the future, and deep humility and prayerfulness in the face of the challenges ahead,” she said. “Our nation is at an historic moment. Two months ago, the American people spoke, and demanded a new dawn. They called upon the beauty of our Constitution: our system of checks and balances that protects our democracy, remembering that the legislative branch is Article I: the first branch of government, co-equal to the president and judiciary.”

She continued, “When our new Members take the oath, our Congress will be refreshed, and our Democracy will be strengthened by the optimism, idealism and patriotism of this transformative Freshman Class. Working together, we will redeem the promise of the American Dream for every family, advancing progress for every community.” She added, “We must be pioneers of the future.”

In many ways, it was a Reaganesque speech — and not merely because Pelosi quoted him (“As President Reagan said in his last speech as President: ‘If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost’ ") and saluted his vice president, George H.W. Bush (“a cherished former Member of this body, who rose to become a beloved President, and who, last month, returned once more to lie in state”).

The 116th Congress will have a younger, more diverse, more motivated group of congresswomen than ever before, says columnist Karen Tumulty. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Rather than anger, invective, insults and constant haranguing about “invaders,” Pelosi spoke about “love” and the need for bipartisanship. She managed to tweak Republicans, saying, “We will debate and advance good ideas no matter where they come from. And in that spirit, Democrats will be offering the Senate Republican appropriations legislation to re-open government later today — to meet the needs of the American people, to protect our borders, and to respect our workers.” (Ouch.)

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Lest anyone mistake her for an anti-government Republican, Pelosi reeled off a list of things she thinks government can do to improve people’s lives: protecting Social Security, funding schools, job training, ending discrimination. We’ve gotten so used to Republican gloom and doom, fearmongering and mismanagement, it was quite a moment for those who think politicians have an obligation to govern well. (We can fight about the methods, the balance between private and public sectors and the right level of taxation and debt. But make no mistake — the average American wants the government to function better, not disappear.)

Pundits and politicians rightly credit Pelosi with vote-counting acumen, legislative skill, perseverance and toughness. What they often forget is that she does it all with a smile and entreaties to Republicans, not with the crossed arms, pursed lips and bitter snark the president so frequently exhibits.

The first day of a new Congress is always fun and festive; real work lies ahead. We still face a president who lacks the basic intellectual, ethical and temperamental requirements of the job. But for a day, there seemed to be a pleasant breeze blowing through the Capitol. Perhaps we’ve reached the end of the beginning or even the beginning of the end of Trump and Trumpism.

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