The passing of the Age of Pelosi
There is more to this story than most Americans imagine
The Constitution of the United States calls for a new Congress to convene at noon on the third day of January in odd numbered years. Thus, today marks the arrival of America’s 118th Congress. That fact, taken alone, deserves our attention, and not only because of the political significance of our government’s legislative branch. The fact that our constitutional order has continued unbroken since the late 18th century is a testimony to the wisdom of our constitutional fathers and the strength of our political institutions.
But today also marks another historic day for the nation—the passing of the Age of Pelosi. With the election of a new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi will pass the gavel to new, presumably Republican leadership. A new speaker will take the gavel, and Rep. Pelosi will take her seat in the chamber as a member of the House. Most Americans will likely miss much of what that means.
American conservatives rightly think of the Age of Pelosi as an epoch of progressivism, political liberalism, and worse. They are right, of course, and for many years Nancy Pelosi represented the left wing of the Democratic Party. But that party has moved even further left, and, at age 82, Nancy Pelosi knew that she had to give way to new and younger leadership.
But her story is far more interesting than most Americans dream. She learned Democratic politics from her parents when most children were playing hopscotch. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was a product of Baltimore’s Democratic machine. He served in Congress from 1939 to 1947, when he was elected mayor of Baltimore, serving in that role from 1947-1959. The Democratic politics of that era, especially in big East coast cities, was not for the faint-hearted. But Nancy Pelosi learned politics not only from her father, but from “Big Nancy,” her mother.
Susan Page of USA Today, writing Madame Speaker, an admiring biography of Nancy Pelosi, tells us one of the lessons Nancy the daughter learned from Nancy the mother: “She trained her daughter how to keep the ‘Favor File,’ a distinctively D’Alesandro system during those days before computers. It became the stuff of local legend, taking the classic rewards of political machines to a new level. Constituents would line up on the sidewalk outside the house on Abermarle Street, seeking well, favors. They would file in past presidential portraits of FDR and Harry Truman and take a chair on one side of a big desk. Big Nancy would be seated on the other side, ready to chat in Italian if an immigrant didn’t speak English. Little Nancy was often seated at her side, taking notes in her careful hand.”
After graduating from college, Nancy D’Alasandro married Paul Pelosi, who was tied to San Francisco’s Democratic politics. The young couple moved to San Francisco where Paul Pelosi would go on to make a fortune in finance and investments. Nancy Pelosi would aspire to political heights—and get there.
If you want to know at least part of the secret of Nancy Pelosi’s hold on the Democratic Party, just think of that “favor file.” But the real power held over Democratic politicians by Nancy Pelosi may have been the fear of her disfavor.
Pick an issue and Nancy Pelosi likely moved her party to the left on the ideological meter. Like President Joe Biden, she defied the clear teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on the issue of abortion, openly telling Catholic leaders to mind their own business when it came to pregnancy and babies. She opposed virtually every pro-life measure confronted by the House of Representatives. She blocked pro-life efforts on bill after bill and moved her party to an even more extreme position, earning a legacy of death in the womb. By the end of the 117th Congress, Pelosi was banned from taking communion at Catholic parishes in San Francisco. On issues of sexuality and gender, Pelosi was equally leftist and equally effective. She claimed the passage of the so-called “Respect for Marriage Act” in the last Congress to be one of her proudest achievements. She pushed left hard, and she won more than she lost.
In retrospect, it was Pelosi, rather than President Barack Obama, who won the battle for “Obamacare,” or the Affordable Care Act in Congress. Pelosi pushed her way to the top of the Democratic Party’s leadership and then she pushed hard for liberal politics. Her motto, “We don’t agonize, we organize.”
There has never been a Republican parallel to Nancy Pelosi in Congress. There probably never will be. There is no equivalent urban Republican political machine and there is no parallel process for leadership development among Republicans in Congress. Then again, the era of politics as personal branding is certain to transform both parties. Furthermore, Democrats are more naturally constituted to be the dominant congressional party, rather than the Republicans, for the simple reason that the platform of legislating for an ever-expanding federal government and spending has a built-in power advantage over the party that tries, more and less seriously, to oppose that expansion.
But all that should underline to conservatives the importance of congressional elections and the urgency of who holds the speakership and majority control in the House. I believe the Age of Pelosi has been wildly successful for liberalism at great cost to the nation. But, even as the best generals on one side learn from the best strategists on the other side, maybe there is one important lesson to learn from Nancy Pelosi: Don’t agonize, organize. Will the new Republican leadership in the House show themselves up to that challenge?
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