Tuesday, April 24 , 2018, 8:25 am | Fog/Mist 52º


Mark Shields: Don’t Underestimate This Speaker

Pelosi proves herself a master strategist in leading House Democrats

Drinking the first cup of coffee in the morning is, for me, no more important than is reading that day’s New York Times. It’s a daily ritual, alternately enjoyable, informative and infuriating.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

How infuriating? Over the years, The Times has written — make that preached — on the need for Republicans to become a more tolerant, “big tent” political party. How? By including voters and candidate with a “pro-choice” position on the thorny issue of abortion. But I search in vain to hear The New York Times tell Democrats they, too, can be a real “big tent” party by welcoming other Democrats who hold a “pro-life” position on abortion.

But the reality is that without elected pro-life House Democrats in their caucus, Democrats would be exactly what they were between 1995 and 2007: a frustrated and powerless minority. Even absent any editorial encouragement from The Times or the “liberal press,” House Democrats began recruiting, electing and embracing pro-life candidates who could win in culturally conservative congressional districts. That is how you build both a coalition party and a House majority in which Democratic members, while not agreeing on every issue, do mostly agree on most issues.

As the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California was one of the principal architects and engineers of her party’s taking and holding the House of Representatives in the 2006 and 2008 elections. As the first woman speaker, she has done what none of her male predecessors, including legendary Sam Rayburn and “Tip” O’Neill, had ever been able to do: win House passage of a national health-care reform bill.

Let us stipulate that Pelosi is not a beloved national figure. In the most recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, 26 percent of voters registered favorable feelings toward her, while 42 percent expressed negative feelings. But within the halls of the Capitol, Pelosi has shown herself to be Master of the House.

A check of Pelosi’s scheduler’s records over the past 10 months reveals 35 full party caucuses and close to 180 meetings on health care. She has had one-on-one colleague sessions, and meetings with the Black Caucus; the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats; with anxious rural members; with the Hispanic Caucus, angry at the bill’s treatment of undocumented immigrants; with the liberal Progressive Caucus; with small business Democrats; and with the Pro-Choice Caucus, to name a few. “The Democratic Party,” former Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, noted, “is a mixture, an amalgam, a mosaic. Call it a fruitcake.”

To win the votes of pro-life House Democrats needed to pass the health-care bill, Pelosi agreed to a floor vote on an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to include the Hyde Amendment, which since 1976 has barred the use of federal funds to pay for abortions except when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or it threatens the life of the mother.

For permitting the vote on the Stupak amendment — which reflects the basic national consensus that abortion be legal and available and that tax dollars not be used to pay for it — the strongly pro-choice Pelosi faced the unbridled wrath of her sister pro-choice Democrats. According to eyewitnesses, Pelosi told the leaders of her Pro-Choice Caucus that what she and their party were working to pass was “not an abortion rights bill. It is a health-care bill.”

Pelosi’s immediate predecessor as leader of House Democrats, Dick Gephardt of Missouri, has privately confided his doubts that a male speaker like himself would have had the credibility to placate his angry pro-choice women members.

But like the anti-communist Richard Nixon opening U.S. relations with communist China, the pro-choice Pelosi could and did pull it off. Throughout she showed herself to be tireless, shrewd and tough. Anyone who underestimates this speaker does so at his peril.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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