Nobody knows whether Nancy Pelosi can prevail where Dick Gephardt failed. What can be said confidently right now is that her ideology will have little effect on her future success. Assuming that Ms. Pelosi wins the minority leadership in the House of Representatives when her colleagues vote on Nov. 14, her ascension will owe more to her personal dynamism, hard work, organizational skills and fund-raising abilities than her opinions about gay rights or medical marijuana.
On the political spectrum of the Democratic caucus, Ms. Pelosi sits well to the left of dead center. Her refreshing embrace of the L-word has provoked automated cackles from the progressive-bashing pundits who now dominate the broadcast media. That she also represents the beautiful City by the Bay encourages lesser pundits to engage in queer-baiting by proxy, an opportunity that none of these pulpit bullies ever resists.
Other kinds of opportunism have cropped up along her path, notably the last-minute candidacy of Harold Ford Jr., a young Tennessee Democrat who says he hopes to expunge her kind of liberalism from the party. If he succeeded, of course, there would be very few Democrats left in the House. Mr. Ford is the son of a former Congressman, who naturally relied upon support from white liberals throughout a career that made his son’s ambition possible.
Ford Junior overrates himself as a centrist, anyway. While he sides with the Republicans slightly more often than Ms. Pelosi, his actual voting record is quite liberal. The National Abortion Rights Action League gave him a 100 percent rating last year, as did the gay-oriented Human Rights Campaign. Likewise the National Education Association and most of the other major labor unions that compile scorecards.
Mr. Ford is really just a clever climber who has found a media niche as the “most conservative black Democrat in the House.” He displayed that cynical savvy when he phoned Don Imus the other day to announce his candidacy. (It didn’t bother Mr. Ford that Imus -probably America’s most blatantly racist mainstream program-made a peculiar venue for him.) Aside from inexperience, Mr. Ford’s problem is that he has done little for anyone but himself-unlike Ms. Pelosi, a tireless ally of Democrats in difficulty.
Meanwhile, conservatives gloat over Ms. Pelosi’s rise. They too love lisping the “San Francisco liberal” epithet, even if many of them would probably feel more comfortable there than in a place like rural Wyoming. And they’re already busy dressing her in left-wing drag, conveniently omitting any mention of her leadership against human-rights violations in China, a cause the Republican right claims to uphold.
According to Republican pundits, Ms. Pelosi’s views will alienate most Americans and damage her party’s prospects. Their suggestion is that if Democrats want to succeed, they should simply surrender to the White House. But here’s a bit of advice about such advice: Don’t do what the Republicans say. Do what they do.
And what do the Republicans do? What they’re preparing to do is elevate Tom DeLay, a nasty man whose capacity to alienate the press and public probably exceeds Newt Gingrich at his worst. “The Hammer” isn’t merely a denizen of the ideological ultra-fringe, although no one can doubt his residence there. Not long ago, he advised Texas parents to boycott Baylor University and Texas A&M because those institutions teach evolution, which he has previously indicted as the cause of the Columbine shootings. Mr. DeLay is also excessive in his sleazy relationship with lobbyists and his vengeful attitude toward adversaries.
Newsweek ‘s Evan Thomas articulated the conventional wisdom about Mr. DeLay when George W. Bush took office. The new President, said Mr. Thomas, “ought to use DeLay’s extremism and general awfulness and low popularity as a foil to show what a man of the center he is and stiff DeLay.” Why not? Because even if they weren’t merely two faces of the same creature, Mr. DeLay is too good at what he does to be ignored.
The fact that Mr. DeLay is truly repellent won’t matter in the least when the equally obnoxious Dick Armey departs, leaving the majority leadership and the operation of the House to his Texas comrade. (An amiable nonentity from Illinois wields the Speaker’s gavel. Aside from him, however, nobody is deceived by the pretense that he is important.) This is because the new majority leader is eminently qualified for his job by virtue of skill and determination-and by his partisanship.
In their commitment to their respective parties, as measured by their voting records, Mr. DeLay and Ms. Pelosi closely resemble each other. That’s what a Congressional leader is: a strong, energetic partisan who inspires loyalty from her members. I expect Nancy Pelosi will prove sufficiently flexible and energetic to wipe the smiles off those smug faces. She should remember 1992, when the Republicans lost it all. They didn’t mutate into centrist Democrats. No, they mounted the creative attack that won what they still have.