I’d like to point out that in the middle of all the praise for Obama, we’re missing an obvious truth: It was Nancy Pelosi who dragged this bloodied carcass of a health bill across the finish line and got the job done.
I’ve had my problems with Speaker Pelosi (lack of BushCo accountability for war crimes is just one) but she believed in a broad bill when all the party pragmatists had given up. And even though it’s not the bill I wanted to see, it really is the beginning of something historic. And for that, Madame Speaker, I salute you:
The knock on Pelosi was simple: To anoint a “San Francisco liberal” as a party icon would simply affirm the caricature of Democratic leaders that Republicans had been peddling for years – to devastating effect. Better to pick her less strident, more pragmatic rival, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, their thinking went. But Pelosi had the votes and won what remains the longest leadership campaign in House history (more than three years of starts and stops) by a 118-95 count.That verdict led directly to Sunday night. Because the ideological ambition that separated Pelosi from Hoyer is probably what saved the concept of wholesale healthcare reform when it seemed destined for the trash heap just two months ago.
Pelosi, we have learned in recent days, was instrumental in prodding the White House to press ahead with its push for large-scale reform after January’s special Senate election in Massachusetts – even as Rahm Emanuel, once a House man himself, urged the president to radically pare back his vision. And it was Pelosi who then somehow struck a deal with the Senate and found a way to convince 219 of her fellow Democrats to vote “yes” on a bill they hated.
It’s impossible to know for sure how Hoyer, had he been the speaker, would have responded to Scott Brown’s Massachusetts triumph. But his political history shows him to be much more of an incrementalist than Pelosi. It’s hard to imagine his instincts would have been any different from Emanuel’s – and that Democrats, under a Speaker Hoyer, would on Sunday night have been able to boast of expanding coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.
Fittingly, just minutes after the final vote, Hoyer himself hailed Pelosi as “the single most responsible person for this night’s success.”
The passage of healthcare reform is not just a triumph of Pelosi’s liberal idealism, though it is partly that. It’s just as much a triumph of her underappreciated legislative savvy – mastery, really. In the ’01 leadership race, Hoyer was supposed to be the skilled tactician. Pelosi was supposed to be the clueless ideologue. But as speaker, she’s adeptly mixed her idealism with the deft touch of a seasoned congressional insider.
You need look no further than the healthcare saga for confirmation of this. Who else could have pulled off what Pelosi just did? For more than a year, she carefully balanced the wildly disparate interests of her caucus’ various coalitions – the progressives who demanded a “robust” public option, the Blue Dogs who cared mainly about deficits, the pro-lifers who made abortion their make-or-break issue, and on and on. She gave away just enough to each group to keep reform alive – without sacrificing her own bottom line of near-universal coverage.
She also went to war with the Senate after the Massachusetts special election – and won, forcing that chamber’s leaders to embrace the reconciliation process they’d been shunning.