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NOVEMBER 17, 2022
Meyerson on TAP
The Greatest-Ever Speaker of the House
Nancy Pelosi steps down.
When Speakers of the House of Representatives cease to be Speakers, they almost immediately fall down the nation’s memory hole, never to emerge. Only one Speaker went on to the presidency: James K. Polk, whose chief achievement when in the White House was to foment our war on Mexico. As Speaker, Henry Clay led the charge to begin the War of 1812, and did play a key role in the pre–Civil War sectional compromises between North and South. Since the Civil War, however, Speakers have almost never played a leading role, even in those times when landmark legislation was enacted.

The House went through three Democratic Speakers during the years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, none of whom were primarily responsible for drafting or steering to passage any major bills, and only one of whom is remembered at all, and that’s because he was the uncle of the actress Tallulah Bankhead. The historic civil rights and safety-net legislation of the Great Society passed when John McCormack was Speaker, but McCormack rates no more than a footnote, if that, in the story. Until the past decade, the Speaker with the most substantive lawmaking record was Democrat Sam Rayburn, who presided over the House in the 1940s and ’50s. But Rayburn’s chief contributions—legislation that regulated Wall Street—came in the 1930s, when he merely chaired a House committee.

Which brings us to Nancy Pelosi, who announced today that she’d step down from the Speakership that she held during the last two years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the first two years of Barack Obama’s, and again during the last two years (let’s hope) of Donald Trump’s presidency and the first two years of Joe Biden’s. When the current lame-duck session expires, she’ll have been the Democrats’ House leader for two decades, tying Rayburn’s record for party leader longevity.

Pelosi’s tenure as Democratic leader was situated entirely within a period when the gulf between Democrats and Republicans has been too wide for compromise, and the parties’ electoral strength was evenly matched (at least at the legislative level, where the clustering of Democrats in cities and more precise, computer-generated gerrymandering created districts that offset the Democrats’ popular-vote majorities). Within those constraints, she worked incessantly to win Democratic majorities, and played a decisive role in the enactment of nearly every significant piece of legislation passed during the Obama and Biden presidencies.

Most importantly, it was Pelosi, overriding the let’s-give-up counsel of Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress. With the razor-thin majority of the past two years, she was able to win the assent of the entire caucus for much of Biden’s program, albeit coming up short on the core of the Build Back Better proposal. As minority leader, her most important legislative achievement was assembling and leading a decisive majority within the divided Democratic caucus to oppose the authorization of the Iraq War, and cleaning Bush’s clock in 2005 when he attempted to use the political capital from his re-election to establish private Wall Street accounts for Social Security.

She had her shortcomings, to be sure. Until the advent of COVID, she stuck to the benighted fiscal orthodoxy of PAYGO, a de facto obeisance to the gods of budget balancing. She never groomed a successor, and Democrats saw a lot of talent move on as they tired of her control. (Even now, while she is stepping down from leadership she is not leaving Congress, instead serving as counsel emerita to presumptive incoming Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.) As a public speaker, she never got beyond verbalizing bumper-sticker messages, reiterating slogans never longer than five words. Then again, public speaking was never a major component of the Speaker’s job until the tenure of Newt Gingrich, whose proto-Trumpian calumnies drew unprecedented media coverage for a Speaker.

By the standards of today’s progressives, Pelosi often seemed a creature of the Democrats’ ancien régime, with a gulf both ideological and chronological separating her from, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That said, she was clearly the most liberal leader House Democrats have ever had, and as the ideological sorting between the two parties grew more pronounced, she moved somewhat leftward herself.

Once Obama left office, she no longer invited the Robert Rubin types (including Robert Rubin himself) to give economic briefings to the party caucus. Moreover, Pelosi’s synthesis of liberalism and “operationalism”—her ability to cobble together majority support for legislation against the odds—was a model of principled legislative leadership. (When I profiled Pelosi for the Prospect back in 2004, several House Democratic old-timers marveled at how “operational” she was.) Her refusal to back impeachment proceedings against Trump for his political idiocies, but pushing it through for his abuse of power in dealing with Ukraine and fomenting the insurrection, showed a characteristically keen sense of what was legally and politically impeachable and what was not.

More than Hillary Clinton or the all-but-invisible Kamala Harris, it was Pelosi who broke the glass ceiling for women as political leaders. No recent figure in American politics has come across as a consummate and exemplary political professional like Pelosi has (well, maybe Mitch McConnell has, but his icy demeanor and partisanship-über-alles make him much more a factional fanatic in the mold of John C. Calhoun than a legitimately national figure). Unlike McConnell, Pelosi also showed it was possible to be a consummate political professional without surrendering human qualities. Demonized for decades by a Republican Party that dived gleefully into sexist, fantastical, and deeply ugly attacks well before Donald Trump came along, Pelosi never responded with anything even remotely personal.

One of the debts we owe the January 6th Committee was its airing of behind-the-scenes footage of legislative leaders during that day’s insurrection. Keeping cool, making specific requests to authorities who could provide police reinforcements, determined to resume the announcement of the Electoral College votes, Pelosi stood out as the one leader in the Capitol, let alone the White House, who knew what had to be done and how to do it. That encapsulated her strengths as party leader and Speaker; it stands now as her valedictory.
Still Democracy’s Death Watch
Saving democracy does not resonate when the forces of reaction are gearing up for the next offensive. BY GABRIELLE GURLEY
We Already Have Laws to Stop Crypto Fraud
Forget Washington’s urgency to design a regulatory regime for crypto. It’s better to treat it like any other illegal operation. BY DAVID DAYEN
The Enduring Corporate Entrenchment in China
Contrary to Thomas Friedman, Wall Street still makes a killing from China at the expense of workers. BY RAMONA LI & MICHAEL HAACK
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