Renée Loth

The power of Pelosi

By Renée Loth
March 26, 2010

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AT THE end of January, when all of Washington was wailing that Scott Brown’s election to the US Senate meant a stake in the heart of health care reform, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a press conference and outlined her plan for the bill. “You go through the gate,’’ she said. “If the gate’s closed you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole-vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in. But we are going to get health care reform passed for the American people.’’

No doubt unconsciously, and with a fair bit less rhetorical power, Pelosi was echoing the hortatory words of Winston Churchill during World War II: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender. . .’’

Pelosi has been hammered all week by conservatives enraged that she would press her party’s advantage to pass the bill without a single Republican vote. There’s already a “Fire Nancy Pelosi’’ website. We are told her poll numbers are plummeting.

But Americans like a fighter. When the saliva settles from the sputtering talk show hosts, and people discover the actual law is not a tyrannical government diktat but basically a consumer-protection act, it’s likely the tide will turn.

You have to admire the grit and persistence of Pelosi, whose persuasive powers were at their height in the days leading up to the vote. Buffeted by doubts even from within the White House, she held her seat, and managed to cajole both the pro-life conservative Bart Stupak and the single-payer liberal Dennis Kucinich into supporting the bill. That’s some savvy legislating.

“She’s no-nonsense,’’ said Boston congressman Michael Capuano, who is close to the speaker. “She’s a liberal at heart but she knows when to give and when to take.’’

Pelosi insisted on pushing ahead with a plan to cover 32 million Americans, dismissing a more incremental plan floated by other Democrats as “kiddie care.’’ But she compromised when it was necessary too, jettisoning the public option she had long championed and finding a way to get to yes with Stupak. The executive order president Obama signed assuring that no federal funds will pay for abortions is painful to many women, but it is no worse than the status quo.

Pelosi’s success passing health care also vindicates her role as the most powerful woman in Washington. The image is still fresh of Pelosi accepting the gavel surrounded by her grandchildren and the children of other members. That tableau was a promise that cracking the marble ceiling would actually make a difference. Pelosi wasn’t going to stop at being the historic first woman speaker of the House. She was going to pass historic legislation, too.

Pelosi’s display of muscle is complicated for liberals and different-voice feminists who want to believe that progressive women will change the system once they come to power. Learning to play the old boy’s game is distasteful, because the game can be so dirty. But worse than being arrogant or partisan is being those things and also not getting anything done.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Democrats were the party of raw power. They had ward bosses and arm twisters and union enforcers to push through their agenda. Republicans, meanwhile, were the party of process: decorous men in white shoes who disdained the political rough and tumble. Around the time of president Reagan’s ascendance, those roles began to reverse.

Not to get too misty-eyed about it, the Democratic smoke-filled rooms also excluded most women and minorities, and could be corrupt and secretive.

But when it comes to an overhaul of one-sixth the nation’s economy, it helped that Pelosi was less the San Francisco latte-sipper and more the Baltimore daughter of a machine mayor.

The health care bill is far from perfect. It won’t do enough to control costs, solve the primary care doctor shortage, or decisively shift the focus away from private medicine to public health.

But it is the biggest social advance in a generation. And it got done.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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