Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Pelosi chronicles

Back in November, I posted a series of stories about Nancy Pelosi's amazing legislative achievements for my Facebook friends. Today Pelosi returns as Speaker. So I thought it would be good to share these stories publicly.

The first of my Nancy Pelosi stories, chronologically speaking, was from the worst time I’ve ever lived through in politics.

It was late 2004. George W. Bush had just been re-elected. Having launched a pointless war that would kill a million people, he turned his attention to privatizing Social Security. As he said two days after winning re-election, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.” Nothing had stopped him before, and what would stop him now?

Pelosi had become House Democratic Leader. Republicans had a 233-202 House majority and unified control of government. Dick Gephardt, the previous Democratic Leader, had sponsored the 2002 Iraq War Resolution, hoping that a forceful pro-war position would help his Presidential campaign. (There’s a lot we need to fix about the Democratic Party. But believe me when I say that it is so much better than back then.) Having gotten their war from Gephardt, Republicans expected to get Social Security privatization from Pelosi.

Privatization would’ve been a policy design horror story. Social Security is one of the most efficiently administrated parts of the federal budget. Money comes in, checks go out, the computer does it, and there isn’t much overhead. Contrast this with the fees people would be paying if they each had to manage a personal Social Security account in the stock market through major financial corporations. And then there’s the large influx of na├»ve new investors for Wall Street to plunder. One of the lowest-overhead parts of the federal budget would be turned into a giant corporate welfare machine.

More importantly, the whole point of Social Security is to make sure you don’t end up in poverty when you’re an old person who can’t work. We don’t want you being miserable in your old age, no matter whether you’re bad at investing. Turning the program into personally managed investments is the end of that. (There were kludgy solutions like guaranteeing a minimum payout no matter how your stocks did. Economically minded friends will be able to describe and criticize the sort of investment behavior that encourages.)

Republicans weren’t unified on how to pay for the transition costs associated with privatization. Many refused to raise taxes, being Republicans. Some refused to cut benefits, as that was politically toxic with elderly voters. Some refused to run deficits, because back then a few Republicans were still like that.

So despite the Republican majority, any way of funding the plan would require some Democratic votes. Republican leaders knew this. Fortunately, Pelosi did too. Good vote-counting isn’t just knowing how the votes will go now, but how they’ll go if compromises go this way or events go that way. That’s what Pelosi does.

When Republican leaders tried to pressure Democrats into supplying the extra votes for privatization, Pelosi made sure they found united opposition and no willingness to negotiate. The ease with which Republicans got the Iraq War from Gephardt made them expect a Democratic version of Social Security Privatization that they could make slight concessions to for the necessary Democratic votes. Republicans and centrists kept asking Pelosi when the Democratic version of Social Security privatization was going to come out. Her answer from spring of 2005 was: “Never. Is never good enough for you?”

Privatization did have one Democratic supporter for a little while – Congressman Allen Boyd from Florida. I don’t know what Pelosi did to him to make him stop. But after he retired and became a lobbyist, he became a top source for quotes about how awful Pelosi is. This is why I get so frustrated with lefty types who dislike Pelosi. You don’t even know how much your enemies hate her for crushing them.

Pelosi’s strategy killed privatization. Republicans didn’t have the votes within their caucus because they couldn’t agree on the funding. Because Pelosi had held the caucus together, Republicans couldn’t get the votes from Democrats. Knowing they’d lose, Republican leaders didn’t even bring the bill to the House floor. Major initiatives usually die in the Senate because of a filibuster or the lower degree of control leadership has over Senators, but Pelosi killed Social Security Privatization so hard it couldn’t even be voted on in the House.

Many of my friends see Trump’s election in 2016 as the worst political event in their lives. For me, Bush’s re-election in 2004 was bigger. We were in the depths of a giant war, and Republicans had won an election on it. I’ve enjoyed being your Optimism Guy for the past two years. But I couldn’t have done it back then, as the only future I could see was war everywhere and American politics spiraling into endless horror. I can do it now partly because in that darkest moment, Nancy suddenly destroyed Social Security privatization.


It's occurred to me that the many folks who got into Democratic politics during the Trump Era may not sufficiently appreciate Nancy Pelosi because they don't know the old stories. I should tell you how Pelosi turned the Democrats into a party that favored withdrawal from Iraq.

Pelosi had always opposed the Iraq War. In 2002, she voted against the war resolution. In 2005, she wanted to push for withdrawal, while fellow Democrats Rahm Emanuel and Steny Hoyer thought it was a better strategy to continue with the "we support the war but don't like how Bush is doing it" line with which John Kerry had lost in 2004.

Pelosi turned to her political ally Jack Murtha, an ex-Marine with enough Vietnam medals to cover much of his barrel chest. Murtha had voted for the war, but had misgivings. So Pelosi asked him to sponsor the withdrawal resolution. He gave a big speech on the floor of the House and was attacked heavily by right-wing media... but in mainstream circles, it played well. Democrats who wanted withdrawal but were nervous about being tarred as unpatriotic were willing to fall in line behind the decorated war hero. It made withdrawal acceptable and shifted the whole party.

By the 2007-2008 primary, basically every Democrat wanted to get out of Iraq. We were far from 2003-2004 when Howard Dean was seen as extreme for criticizing the war. Iraq War opposition was actually more prominent on the Republican side (Ron Paul!) than Iraq War support on the Democratic side.

Pelosi has bad favorability ratings for the reasons that successful legislative leaders are going to have bad national ratings. They do the dirty legislative work of pulling mean tricks to pass and block things, and they need to win elections only in their own district. So it's easy to attack them and they can just take it. They get used in attack ads, but anyone you swap Pelosi for will get smeared by Fox News and Breitbart and used in attacks the same way.

The thing Pelosi is most amazing at is wrangling votes, and I have some good stories to share about that. But this story demonstrates the Pelosi approach to PR. She understands that the point is to generate good PR for people and causes who need it, not for herself.


The most triumphant of the Nancy Pelosi stories is about how she passed Obamacare for the second time, when everyone thought it was doomed.

The first time, she had to make concessions to Bart Stupak's bloc of anti-abortion House Democrats. She knew that the Senate would pass a more pro-choice bill, and it soon did. The plan was to compromise the bills in a relatively pro-choice way before pushing the final version back through both chambers. (America has trouble passing major social welfare programs largely because our system requires cumbersome stuff like this.)

But then Ted Kennedy died. A Republican won the election to replace him... in Massachusetts. This left too few Democrats to break the filibuster for the compromise version. So the House needed to pass the Senate bill. It differed from the House bill in all kinds of controversial ways including abortion. Nobody thought the votes were there.

Nobody except Pelosi. She said she'd find the votes, and she found them. Jonathan Cohn knows the story best, so I'll turn things over to him. It starts with the seemingly cataclysmic Massachusetts Senate election:

"On the night of the election, prominent House Democrats Barney Frank and Anthony Weiner told MSNBC they thought health care reform was effectively dead. According to senior Democratic aides, Pelosi figured that Massachusetts left her with a core of only about 180 Democrats sure to vote with her. She’d have to pick up the rest from a group that was divided among themselves.

One of Pelosi’s first moves was an appeal for calm. Take a breath, she told her members, and don’t say anything publicly that might set off a stampede. In caucus meetings, she listened—and then, ever so slowly, she started to push. “After Massachusetts, there was a big Democratic caucus, everybody was trashing health care, and you left the room thinking, ‘This is just never going to happen,’” one senior Democratic aide recalls. “And then, the next caucus, she’s talking about how we’re going to do it. ... I thought there was no way in hell.”

But, if Pelosi projected confidence, she had a major worry: Back at the White House, a debate over whether to proceed with comprehensive reform was playing out one more time. Rahm Emanuel was, once again, proposing to find a quick deal on a smaller bill that would insure just kids. And he wasn’t just talking it up internally. He’d discussed the idea with members of Congress, and, in February, The Wall Street Journal published a story about it. Whether Rahm was merely exploring the option or actively shopping it, Pelosi thought all the talk of an “eensy weensy bill,” as she called it, was undermining her efforts. She told the administration she needed Rahm to cease and desist.

The internal debate was no secret at the White House, and, particularly in the first two weeks after Massachusetts, many administration officials assumed that health reform really was “Dead, DEAD DEAD,” as one put it to me in an e-mail. Officials also had their own frustrations with Pelosi: Once the smoke had cleared, all sides realized the only way forward was to have the House pass the Senate bill, and then amend the Senate bill using the reconciliation process. But Pelosi kept insisting the Senate go first, something administration officials thought unworkable as politics and policy. Pelosi had asked Obama and Reid not to pressure her publicly, lest they alienate more members; they were complying. But, privately, many administration officials feared Pelosi wouldn’t budge because she couldn’t—that votes in the House would never materialize.

But, every time this debate reached the Oval Office, the president came down in the same place: He was elected to do the big things, and he wasn’t ready to give up. He told his cabinet, apparently referring to a Tom Toles cartoon in The Washington Post, that they were on the two-yard line—and he didn’t want to settle for a field goal. At a town-hall meeting, he gave an unscripted, 20-minute soliloquy on the importance of reform; at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore, he showcased Republican obstructionism and demonstrated the deep, intricate knowledge of policy that he memorably lacked three years before, at that Las Vegas SEIU forum... Pelosi used the time to work on her members, while House staff—coordinating with their White House and Senate counterparts—quietly figured out how to write a bill that would fix the Senate package within the intricate rules of reconciliation. Reid worked his caucus, urging them to give Pelosi time and making sure 51 members would be ready to approve the reconciliation bill when the time came.

There were familiar political hurdles, like the tax on benefits, which had become the critical piece for winning CBO validation of cost control. Obama agreed to scale it back, and then told the unions they'd have to take it. In the end, once again, it came down to abortion, because the Senate’s language was less restrictive than what Stupak had won. John Dingell reminded Stupak, to whom he’d been a mentor, how important reform was. Stupak relented, accepting an executive order that merely affirmed existing bans on taxpayer-funded abortions. By this time, House leadership and the White House were working as a team. Insiders from both camps observed that Obama and Pelosi seemed to be reinforcing one another—and, together, conjuring up a political miracle.

The final weekend played out like a microcosm of the debate: Conservative protesters descended upon Capitol Hill, marching on the lawn and through the House office buildings, hurling racial and homophobic epithets, and—in one case—saliva at Democrats. But the Democrats responded by closing ranks. When Pelosi gave her closing speech, the entire caucus rose in ovation. “We will be joining those who established Social Security, Medicare, and now, tonight, health care for all Americans,” she proclaimed. As Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, watched from the speaker’s box and, nearby, Nancy-Ann DeParle hoisted her son onto her lap, electronic scoreboards tracked the vote—214, 215, and, finally, 216. A spontaneous cheer erupted from the House floor: “Yes we can! Yes we can!”