When the history of American politics in the first decade of the 21st century is written, there will be a lot of discussion about gridlock and obstructionism. But it will also be noted that one politician stood head and shoulders above the fray and managed to swim upstream and thrust crucial legislation through the quagmire of partisan politics.
In her relatively short tenure, Nancy Pelosi has been one of the most effective Speakers of the House in my lifetime. Vilified by the right and kept at arm’s length by her own party, she almost singlehandedly achieved the impossible – a quantum leap in health care reform – the most important legislation in this arena since Medicare was born in the 1960s.
Faced with an opposition party that quickly became irrelevant by its admission that its goal was to obstruct all of the President’s initiatives, Speaker Pelosi took on the challenge of building a coalition within her own party. She built this alliance among the most liberal, the middle-of-the road, Blue Dog conservative, and anti-abortion zealots, all living under the Democratic Party banner. What came out was a weak bill, still beholden to the for-profit insurance cartel, but one that also gave American citizens some excellent reforms. Extended dependent coverage, elimination of pre-existing conditions, and elimination of lifetime caps are things that should have been part of the American system decades ago, but with Mrs. Pelosi’s drive and skill, we have those benefits today.
Her opponents characterize her as a raging liberal, but nothing could be further from the truth. To the dismay of the left, when she assumed the role of Speaker in January 2007, she took the issue of impeaching President Bush off the table. While this was probably necessary to maintain political comity, it sets a dangerous precedent – telling future presidents it’s OK to start a war of choice based on deliberately false information. By this standard, a president can be impeached for lying about oral sex, but sending Americans to die in a trillion dollar war based on lies is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor.
Mrs. Pelosi also earned the disdain of liberals by removing the most cost-effective option from Health Care Reform even before the debate began. She eliminated the single-payer, or Medicare for All, approach – leaving a lot less room to negotiate for a better health care bill. Again, something that was probably politically necessary, but did not serve the American people well.
No doubt, much of the venom directed at the Speaker is from those who are uncomfortable (to say the least) about seeing a woman in a position of significant power. We saw this with Hillary Clinton’s first attempt at reform and also with Madeline Albright’s tenure as Secretary of State. Many of these are the same people who refuse to accept the legitimacy of an African-American in the White House.
It is likely that Mrs. Pelosi’s tenure as Speaker will be cut short in January as John “Hell No We Can’t” Boehner will assume the podium in the House chamber. This is a shame because we still have a long way to go to improve health care and pass other progressive legislation in this country. But with the unlimited secret funding of right-wing candidates in today’s environment, it looks like the GOP/Tea Party will assume control. Further meaningful reform will be delayed longer than it should be while the 112th Congress will become an arm of corporate interests, sending jobs overseas and privatizing essential government services into for-profit enterprises.
Hopefully, Mrs. Pelosi as a back bencher can help stem the tide of Republican deconstruction of our recent accomplishments and lay the groundwork for campaign finance reforms and further improvement to health care in the years to come. Thank you, Madam Speaker.