GROWING UP IN SAN FRANCISCO, I met Nancy Pelosi when I was a young reporter. She was then chair of the California Democratic Party, and I will always remember her gracious manner and patience toward me. But that "gentle lady" bears little resemblance to the hard-nosed House Speaker who treats her Democratic colleagues like soldiers in a boot camp and brooks no criticism. Power may corrupt, as Lord Acton told us, but it can also coarsen.
Republicans may chafe under Pelosi's iron rule, but they also optimistically think she is politically toxic for Democrats. A late July Rasmussen poll found her with a favorable rating of 35 percent and an unfavorable rating of 57 percent, for a net deficit of 22 points. What's more, those who have a very unfavorable opinion of Pelosi overwhelm those who regard her very favorably-by a five-to-one margin- 45 percent to 9 percent. "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the most despised political figures in the country," Politico concluded in July. "Month after month of polling shows that the Speaker is neither trusted nor liked by the general public."
It's true a Speaker is an inside player and can remain strong if she has the support of her caucus. Until now, Pelosi has. "You don't have to love her, but she's good," one Northeastern Democrat told Politico. "She's solid with us, and that's all that matters, although she could take a real hit internally if we bungle the health care bill."
If that happens, observers will say the bill began taking on water when it became clear that allowing her committee chairmen to write provisions far more radical than President Obama's original proposal was a disaster in the making. As the costs of the bill mounted, Pelosi continued to insist it represented "real change" for patients because it would mean "a cap on your [health care] costs, but no cap on your benefit."
This was either delusional or disingenuous. Moderate Blue Dog Democrats realized that under the bill the House was drafting, voters would face steeply rising taxes and premiums along with restrictions on their health care choices. The 40 or so Blue Dogs from House districts that John McCain carried began to get nervous. While they recognized that Pelosi could probably ram through a bill in the House, they also knew they would be politically vulnerable if the Senate voted it down, leaving them exposed for having supported an unpopular-and failed-piece of legislation. Even if the Senate passed it, the bill might trigger a voter backlash as early as 2010.
Many Blue Dogs also resented the pressure-which came close to arm-breaking-that Pelosi used to secure a 219 to 212 victory for the cap and trade bill designed to combat global warming, but which in reality amounted to a large tax increase. To win, Pelosi forced the bill to the floor only hours after its final version was ready and rejected even a vote on most proposed amendments.
Ironically, Pelosi used to decry such "win at all costs" tactics when she was minority leader. Back in 2004, she unveiled a proposed "Bill of Rights" that called on the then-majority Republicans to stop holding roll-call votes past the normal 15 minutes, to allow amendments to bills, and to give members time to read what they were voting on. In 2006, just before becoming Speaker, Pelosi reiterated her plans to "ensure the rights of the minority" and to set "a higher standard" for fairness.
Despite those pledges, the new Democratic majority quickly adopted a whatever-it-takes approach to passing legislation. A dubious ethics bill was passed fewer than 24 hours after being introduced. The bill expanding health care coverage to children was rewritten at 1 a.m., a rule harshly limiting debate was passed at 3 a.m., and the bill was sent to the floor for a final vote the same day. "In the House the elbows have become as sharp as razor blades," political scientist Larry Sabato lamented.
THIS YEAR, the stimulus package was rushed through without public vetting, in part because the Speaker had to fly to Italy over the weekend. She apparently thought it best for voters to learn about the bill's contents-such as the wildly unpopular bonuses to federal bailout recipient AIG- only after Barack Obama had signed it into law.
But Pelosi's opportunism-her ability to pursue a left-wing agenda with little media criticism-proved to be a major embarrassment in "Waterboardgate," where her credibility in national security matters was badly hurt. The incident began when an internal report by the Director of National Intelligence was leaked to ABC News last spring. For weeks, the Speaker had insisted that although briefed on the "enhanced interrogation" techniques used against al Qaeda suspects after 9/11, she wasn't told that the harsh techniques were being used-only that they might be used.
This distinction allowed her to bash the Bush administration for its controversial decisions to use harsh measures on a small number of top terrorist detainees. Pelosi has demanded a "truth commission" that would look into whether acts of "torture" were used.
The only problem was that the DNI report contradicted her claim. The report clearly laid out details of a September 2002 briefing in which Pelosi, who served as the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was told about the methods used to interrogate Abu Zubaydah, a top al Qaeda suspect. The report clearly states that Pelosi was given "a description of the particular EITs [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques] that had been employed." "It's an outrage that she can posture as someone who didn't know what was going on when she clearly did and raised no objections when briefed on it seven years ago," noted Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the former GOP chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
But Pelosi's office wasn't giving an inch. Brendan Daly, a Pelosi spokesman, told ABC News that her "recollection of the meeting is different than the way it is described in the report from the DNI's office."
That defense could be used to explain many of Speaker Pelosi's blunders. A master of political muscle, she has a weak grasp of issues and stubbornly sticks to her talking points even after they've become "inoperative." That helps explain her refusal to acknowledge the objections of Blue Dogs over the obvious soaring costs of the health care bill as well as her insistence that the stimulus bill's pork-barrel projects were "investments in America's future."
Although Republicans will try to make her a political piñata in next year's elections, the real threat to Speaker Pelosi's tenure comes from her fellow Democrats. More and more of them view her as Republicans came to view Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s: a historic figure who brought them to the majority but proved to be an albatross around their necks once he had been office several years.