Political images are sometimes misleading. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is often depicted by political adversaries as an inflexibly ideological liberal more interested in scoring partisan points than building consensus. The reality is more complicated and nuanced.
To be sure, Pelosi’s political philosophy is closely aligned with her liberal San Francisco district. Yet the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is also an incredibly shrewd tactician and dealmaker who wants to win at almost all costs.
Former San Francisco Chronicle Washington bureau chief Marc Sandalow nicely captures the collection of contradictions that is Pelosi in his new biography. Although Pelosi declined to talk to him for the book, Sandalow draws on his earlier interviews with her to help create a balanced account.
Sandalow allows the facts to speak for themselves and doesn’t show much of his voice during the often bland narrative. He seems to respect Pelosi’s political skills, but the frequent descriptions of her as “brusque” leads one to conclude that he doesn’t much like her.
Pelosi’s strengths include a Midas touch with fundraising and an extraordinary ability to persuade. Those skills—learned at the knee of her father, former Baltimore mayor and congressman Thomas D’Alesandro—helped her rise to the House’s top spot. “She understood the mannerisms and the tempo of the House. She had a way with older members. She could chop her opponents off at the knee in a policy dispute. In a social setting, she would never come across as menacing,” Sandalow writes.
He notes that while Pelosi is a solid liberal, she has declined to push the agenda of those who favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or impeaching President Bush. That direction, she calculates, would risk her party’s long-term health.
While Pelosi has had some legislative successes—like increasing funding for AIDS research and putting pressure on China to improve its human rights policy—she does not come across as a policy heavyweight. Sandalow notes that she rarely strays from her talking points during policy discussions.
Of course, leaders need not be policy wonks. Sandalow contends that Pelosi is an expert at doing what leaders are elected to do: counting votes and enforcing party discipline. He points out that when Democrats were in the minority, she was often able to keep moderates in the fold on key votes so that Republicans had little margin for error.
We will have to wait until Pelosi’s tenure in the House’s top job ends for a final assessment, but Madam Speaker will be an important starting point for future books on the subject.
Claude R. Marx is author of a chapter on media and politics in The Sixth-Year Itch, edited by Larry J. Sabato.
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