‘Speaker’ details Pelosi’s rise to power

She’s a trailblazer in a transformational era, a partisan woman at a partisan time.

“The woman and the moment have met,” write scholars Ronald M. Peters Jr. and Cindy Simon Rosenthal, describing Nancy Pelosi in their new study of her Speakership.

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The Peters-Rosenthal book, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics, comes at an opportune time. As the first woman to rise to Speaker of the House, Pelosi (D-Calif.) was already a historic figure. But with final passage of the far-reaching healthcare law in March, a groundbreaking tenure has become a consequential one.

Pelosi’s central role in that debate offers fresh demand for a detailed look at her path to power and her stewardship of the House, even if the book’s exclusion of the legislative endgame makes it necessarily incomplete.

Peters and Rosenthal have written a comprehensive study of Pelosi’s first three years as Speaker, analyzing her both as a party leader and as an institutional administrator. They also offer a convincing argument for the unique role that gender has played in her rise through the ranks and her performance in office. Here their partnership certainly helps: Both are professors at the University of Oklahoma; Peters is an expert on Congress, having written a previous book on the Speakership, while Rosenthal is a scholar on women and political leadership (as well as the mayor of Norman, Okla.).

The authors place Pelosi at the heart of what they call “the new American politics,” a formulation that seeks to tie together the strands of partisanship, technological advancement, dependence on fundraising and increased diversity that have marked the last decade. They delve into the now-familiar narrative of Pelosi as the daughter of the Baltimore Democratic machine who moved to the liberal bastion of San Francisco and raised five children before making a name for herself as a top party fundraiser and operative.

In the House, Pelosi was liberal on policy and pragmatic on politics. Her voting record fit comfortably within the characterization of a “San Francisco liberal,” but she forged alliances with more centrist and conservative Democrats that would later aid her rise to the party leadership.

As a woman in a male-dominated Capitol, Pelosi has at times embraced her gender (“Think of me as a lioness”) and at other times downplayed it, according to Peters and Rosenthal. “As speaker,” they write, “she reflects a full range of gendered images.”

Looking for opportunities to advance in the Democratic leadership, Pelosi picked her spots and maneuvered past more politically centrist rivals, like Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), to become party whip and then leader in 2002. When she became Speaker in 2007, she centralized power in the leadership and ran a partisan House. Voting studies conducted by Peters and Rosenthal show that partisanship even increased in Pelosi’s House compared with the stewardship of her Republican predecessors, Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert.

Yet while the Peters/Rosenthal book is certainly well-researched, its portrait of Pelosi adds little to what is surely the most fascinating question of her life story: how exactly she rose above dozens of other ambitious Democrats to become, arguably, the most powerful woman in America.

Peters and Rosenthal write that they conducted “several dozen confidential interviews” with members of Congress and staff, as well as an interview with Pelosi herself. But there is scarce evidence of these interviews in the text, as the authors rely instead on the public record to describe and analyze Pelosi’s career. The result is a dry account that confirms, but does not challenge, the prevailing image of Pelosi: liberal but pragmatic, steely yet warm, a consummate politician.

Peters and Rosenthal provide useful analysis of Pelosi as a Speaker, placing her decisions on committee assignments and rulemaking in historical context. They also make a compelling case for how her fundraising prowess drove her up the rungs of power in the House Democratic Caucus. The most interesting section of the book is the discussion of the role of gender and Pelosi as a female leader.

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As someone who lived through the feminist wave but entered politics after it had peaked, Pelosi is difficult to characterize. She has been caricatured in sexist ways, they write, and she has also used her femininity to her advantage, as when she describes herself as a “lioness” to project strength. Peters and Rosenthal hint at, but don’t really explore, a comparison between Pelosi and the other dominant woman in Democratic politics: Hillary Rodham Clinton. A question left unanswered is how Pelosi’s Speakership would have been different, at least in 2009, had the Democrat in the White House been Clinton and not Barack Obama.

But the authors are right to put Pelosi at the center of their construct. While Obama campaigned on a politics of hope that transcended ideology, perhaps it is the Speaker’s more grounded, hard-edged style that better embodies the era. A mother of five who waited for her children to grow up before running for office, she has combined an inherited and fine-tuned expertise in traditional politicking with a keen sense of timing to reach new heights of female leadership. And so, in that sense, Peters and Rosenthal are correct: The woman and the moment have met.