Columns » Ernest Dumas

The villain Pelosi

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Somewhere in America, maybe even in Arkansas, there was a Republican candidate for something, justice of the peace maybe, who did not run against Nancy Pelosi or at least take her name in vain.

Tim Griffin, Rick Crawford, Steve Womack, Beth Ann Rankin — all of them were going to Washington to stand up to Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, as if that were something that required either honor or special valor. For that matter, so did Mike Ross, the South Arkansas Democrat, even though he had profited from the speaker's beneficence and her tolerance when he quailed on every controversial issue.

Ross, one of a handful of Blue Dog Democrats to survive the rout on Nov. 2, announced last week that he would not vote for Pelosi for minority leader or for any leadership position. "I have always been committed to favoring compromise and bipartisanship over ideology and party discipline. I have never answered to any party leader and I never will."

Does that sound gutsy? Ross knows he need not worry about repercussions. Pelosi told the Blue Dogs that if they needed to run against her to get re-elected they should do it. Contrary to the image cast by Republicans she is no tyrant. As Ross knows, no one suffers by betraying Nancy Pelosi's leadership.

Every political movement needs a villain. Someone had to replace the frail and dying Ted Kennedy as the archfiend of politics and Pelosi was perfect. She was from liberal San Francisco, an Italian-American, the first woman in history to lead either house of Congress and a septuagenarian who still strives to keep fit and attractive (vanity, you see).

Work on the Pelosi image began immediately when Democrats elected her speaker in 2007 and Ted Kennedy was made saintly by cancer, no longer a useful foil for congressional candidates. ("Why, Senator Bumpers voted with Ted Kennedy 89 percent of the time.")

The Internet was rife with tales of Pelosi arrogance, extravagance and scurrilous statements that she supposedly made somewhere. She became the object of more urban legends than any politician in history. She was hosting wild parties in Air Force jets across the country and around the world with family members and congressmen and with pricey liquor paid for by taxpayers. (Unlike her successor, John Boehner, who finishes every day in the bar, Pelosi does not drink.)

If a Republican or a Fox commentator spoke of Pelosi, it was always with condescension and smirk.

Lots of people, maybe most of them, grew to despise the hateful Nancy Pelosi. They just didn't know exactly why.

So Ross said last week that he wanted House Democrats to choose different leaders, people presumably who will not try to do anything to address the manifold problems of the country. He favored compromise.

That, of course, has been Nancy Pelosi's strength. It made her the most successful congressional leader since Sam Rayburn. Her four years actually have been more productive than Rayburn's 17 years because half his tenure was under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower, a kindred liberal but cautious to a fault. We need a universal health insurance system like Social Security, Ike said, but let's wait for a better time to do it.

The propaganda has made Pelosi a political liability for him, but Ross in his heart knows that she is the most adept leader either party has known in his lifetime. Congress and the president many times have reached a consensus that the country needed to find a way to insure medical attention for everyone — under Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and Obama in his lifetime — but only Pelosi could work out the compromises in the always fractured Democratic caucus to get it done. The process was unsavory, mainly in the Senate, and it was the most conservative plan ever put forward, but it will one day be as popular as Medicare and Social Security.

Although Ross shied away from them more often than not, Pelosi built coalitions to enact some of the most important reforms in the past quarter-century, restructuring Wall Street to reduce the chances of a reprise of the financial collapse, expansion of the Children's Health Care Program, equal pay for women, a GI bill for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, reform of the student loan system that ends $87 billion in subsidies for big banks and makes college education more affordable for students, bold new protections for credit-card holders, a stimulus bill that saved jobs and financed major public works in South Arkansas (Pelosi thought a bigger bill was needed but she put together the coalition that passed the small one). Yes, she passed the hated energy conservation bill that would today, if the Senate could have passed it, be creating clean-energy jobs, improving national security and postponing the world's environmental crisis.

All of them were good for people in the Fourth District, and Ross sometimes found himself in those coalitions. He will one day be able to brag about a few of those things to his grandchildren. As for the rest, he need only smile and say that yes, I was there and Nancy Pelosi was a friend of mine.

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