Last January as it was becoming clear that Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat was likely going to be taken by the Republicans, with opposition to health care reform being a primary reason, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama were ready to scale back their health care plans in order to work with the Republicans. Politico reported that Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a proponent of going incrementally, and it was only the stiff resistance of Nancy Pelosi that got the President to switch course. Pelosi ridiculed Emmanuel’s “kiddie care” and pushed Obama to go for an historic major overhaul.
This says a lot about Pelosi’s power — and her leadership. Assuming the Democrats can hold on to a majority for awhile, she could become an historic leader not just for being the first woman Speaker of the House, but also being one of the most powerful and effective. She realized that going for the incremental approach would be a defeat to what she and others thought the election of Barack Obama was all about. She understood that off year elections mean loses for the party of the President, and that the Republicans were gaining a tail wind. If the President, after getting bills passed by the Senate and House, simply gave up, the Republicans would have a victory, and the President would look weak and ineffective.
Moreover, Pelosi knew she could get this done. She knew it was risky. She knew she could fail. She knew it needed President Obama to be engaged, active, and willing to put his Presidency on the line just as she would put her prestige as Speaker on the line. Sure, if they failed they would regroup and try to limit the damage, but no one doubted the damage would be severe — which is why Emmanuel and Reid were hesitant to move forward.
President Obama, after a year of sinking polls and criticism for not being engaged enough in pushing health care reform, took the gamble. By all accounts the President doesn’t gamble much — he is a consensus maker and a pragmatist. He truly wanted to get a bi-partisan approach, and was surprised by the inside the beltway backbiting that is Washington DC. To be sure, part of it was learning from history. President and Hillary Clinton took control of the health care reform process in 1993-94, essentially giving Congress something they had not constructed themselves.
Having it be a true Congressional process made sense — to a point. The Senate and House did pass a bill, and if not for the untimely death of Senator Kennedy, they probably could have made it happen without having to go through so many procedural hoops. But the pace reflected the President’s lack of focus, and thus it drifted into 2010, creating an opening for the Republicans, united in opposition to reform, to defeat the effort. If not for Pelosi, they would have succeeded.
President Obama, once he engaged, showed true leadership skills himself. He talked to everyone, negotiated between the various interest groups, and did what was necessary to create a coalition to pass the bill. That included an executive order against federal funding of abortion for Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, a move that certainly does not reflect Obama’s personal beliefs. He canceled his trip to Asia, gave a heartfelt speech to the House Democrats, and used his charm — and power — to convince many Representatives to vote yes. This includes many who were determined to vote no, and some who will likely lose in November because of the vote. He showed that he has the leadership skill to have a real transformational Presidency.
The Republicans in the end seemed shocked that Pelosi and Obama could pull this off. The bitterness and hyperbole in the speeches before the vote seemed not only over the top, but spoke only to the most ideological Americans. Most people don’t see this as creeping communism or giving up the essence of what America is all about. That kind of talk is red meat for their base, but not going to convince anyone in the center. Finally, the idea that because polls show the public against the bill the House somehow should vote no ignores the meaning of Representative democracy. You elect Representatives not to vote the whim of the majority, but you elect people you trust to render judgment on issues so complex and unclear that you need to focus on it. Someone making their opinion while watching a few minutes of TV or hearing it talked about on talk radio is fundamentally uninformed. That’s why we have representative rather than direct democracy.
The bitterness of the Republicans reflect the fact that they thought they won last January. Health care was to be Obama’s “Waterloo,” and after the Senate Democrats lost their 60th vote in the Massachusetts special elections, it appeared Obama as damaged goods. No longer the “superstar,” his approval ratings were dropping, his supporters on the left demoralized, and the likelihood that he could accomplish anything significant decreased. This was their game plan, this was why they had to defeat health care. It was close, but they did it — even the talk coming from the Democrats suggested they were backing down.
Pelosi made sure they didn’t. Pelosi pushed the President to undertake the effort, and lead a momentous charge to win the votes necessary to pass the bill. She used power, charm, and intellect to do so. Agree or disagree with the bill that got passed, no one can doubt the fact that Nancy Pelosi is not just the first woman Speaker of the House, but one of the most effective. This bill would not have been passed if not for Nancy Pelosi — she made history.