Nancy Pelosi’s political philosophy, explained

Like many people on the left, I have always had mixed feelings about house speaker Nancy Pelosi.

On the one hand, she is a hugely effective party leader, which is not easy given the diversity of the Democratic Party. But she’s also a pragmatist, which means she chooses her fights very carefully. That compromise instinct is often hard to accept – and sometimes very much like capitulation to the impatient among us.

For conservatives, Pelosi is the face of progressivism, a feared one “Liberal in San Francisco.” And being such a skilled legislator, she has been a thorn in the side of House Republicans since she first became a speaker of the House in 2007. Indeed, it has been the biggest obstacle for Republicans in the past decade. Congress.

The truth is, Pelosi is a bit of a mystery. Despite all her fame, we don’t know much about how she sees the world. Pelosi is still mainly defined by conservative caricatures (and lately some progressive ones). And in general, she says no more than she should say – which is probably one of the reasons for her success.

A new biography by Pelosi by Time magazine writer Molly Ball sheds some new light on the House speaker. It is not the first book written about Pelosi, but it is perhaps the best and at least it is revealing. The big takeaway from Ball’s book is that Pelosi is an old-fashioned operator. She accepts the limitations of the political machine and methodically navigates it. It’s a skill that doesn’t always play well in the Twitter era, but it works.

I spoke to Ball about why she was primarily attracted to Pelosi and what she learned about her political philosophy. We also discuss what is the most interesting question for me: what does Pelosi regret? And what does she think of her progressive critics who says she is too moderate or too eager to compromise lead the Democratic Party?

A slightly edited transcription of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You didn’t find Pelosi all that appealing when you started telling her a few years ago, but at some point you clearly changed your mind. Why?

Molly Ball

I think one of the things I’ve come to understand about her is that she is a fascinating character who has had a fascinating life, but is not necessarily a great storyteller of her own story. She is not a natural storyteller. You see great politicians as orators who always speak in spicy anecdotes and who talk about themselves in a recognizable, moving and empathetic way. She has many strong points as a politician, but I don’t think there is one. But my view of her changed when I started to dive into her story.

Sean Illing

She has been quite caricatured on both sides, and that perception is hard to disprove.

Molly Ball

Right, and I think a lot of my book is about the role of perception in politics in general, but also specifically about how she was perceived over the course of her career. And I think, like everyone else, I was prone to this kind of ingrained caricatures of her as a rigid party without much depth. And I think I learned that that caricature is not right.

Sean Illing

Something that happens very early in your book is that she likes to check things –

Molly Ball

Her staff will tell you that she edits every press release that goes out and she will change a word here and there so that it is just right. Look, I don’t want to psychoanalyze her – I’m not qualified for that. But what you see running through her life is this desire for control, whether it wants to control her own environment, her own situation, her own life.

Sean Illing

Where does that come from?

Molly Ball

She was born in a situation where women did not have much control over their own lives and saw how her mother could never be independent and control her own future. And so she wanted to be in control at a young age and I think that is manifested everywhere.

But look, there is an interesting kind of paradox, where on the one hand she will tell you that she doesn’t care about her public image. On the other hand, I think she has become more aggressive in establishing her image and especially what she sees as her strengths in recent years, because at some point she realized that her negative public image was her ability to achieve her goals prevented.

Sean Illing

Much of that negativity comes from her own party –

Molly Ball

Oh yeah. In 2016 and 2018, there was a lot of fear in the Democratic caucus and an attempt to expel her as a minority leader and then as a speaker just because she was perceived as such a poisonous and polarizing figure. Even many Democrats had come to the conclusion that she was only a liability, that she was a burden simply because of the negative perceptions that had arisen over the years.

Of course, her allies would say that’s because Republicans made this impression on her with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of negative ads tying Democratic congressional candidates to this caricature of a “San Francisco liberal.” And it became sort of a vicious circle in which Democrats didn’t want to defend her because she was considered toxic, and when the perception that even her own party didn’t support her, the perception that she was toxic, it self-looped.

At some point, if she didn’t defend herself, no one else would.

Vice President Mike Pence claps as Pelosi rips a copy of President Donald Trump’s speech after delivering the State of the Union speech on February 4, 2020.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

Sean Illing

Does Pelosi consider itself a real progressive one?

Molly Ball

I don’t know how she would answer that question, and I can’t speak for her, but I will say this: she was born into a democratic political family in Baltimore and I think her loyalty has always been with the party as an institution in instead of for any movement or matter. So it is not progressive in an activist sense. During the Vietnam War, she was pamphlets for Democratic candidates for President. In 1968, when there were riots outside of the Democratic convention, she was in the convention hall. So in that sense she has always been part of the establishment.

But she is also a liberal. And she was on the left side of the party when it comes to issues like gay rights and the environment and war. I mean, she not only voted against the Iraq War, she voted against the Gulf War. She’s been on the left side of her party in many of those ways and quite representative of her district.

Now I don’t think she considers herself a socialist. She is certainly not as far left as some on the left would want her to be, but in reproductive rights she went against her church and her own party to be a consistent advocate of a woman’s right of choice . So I would put her on the left, but not quite on the left.

Sean Illing

What does she think of her critics on the left who say she’s on sale or embodies everything that’s wrong with the democratic establishment?

Molly Ball

She is someone who sees politics very much as the art of the possible. And I think what she would say to anyone with a cause or a problem or movement they are passionate about is going out and doing the job. Go build up support among the public, go find voices here in the House. The House Democratic Caucus is very ideologically diverse, and then they have to do with Republicans. So you can be as far left as you want, but it won’t get you anywhere if you can’t find other people to build that movement with.

So you saw last year when she had had that high-profile conversation with the Squad about the border wall, and she made that dismissive comment that it was four people and that was all the votes they got. She spoke quite literally. She said of all Democrats in the House of Democratic Caucus, only four of them believed that this particular bill did not go far enough. And this was the additional addition to border funding that caused quite a few nasty battles among Democrats in 2019.

And what she says to them is that it’s great that many people like you on Twitter, but if you can’t build a broader base of support, either from the audience or internally in terms of voting in the House, you don’t really have anything .

Now I say in the book that I think she is a bit dismissive of soft strength and that she may be too focused on hard strength, but I think she came to this lesson very honestly. Earlier in her life, she learned that people see you differently when you have the authority, when you have the voices. And that goes all the way back to the 1970s in San Francisco, when she was appointed to the Library Commission. As a woman in 1975, no one necessarily listened to her when she opened her mouth, but people had to listen to her when she voted.

Sean Illing

Did you find her completely introspective of the mistakes she made as a leader of the party?

Molly Ball

She does not admit that she is sorry. She won’t tell you she’s sorry. She has no regrets and she is not afraid. So you can ask her, “What are your biggest regrets in life?” And she’ll just say, “I’m not doing that.”

Sean Illing

So you asked her that question and she wouldn’t answer?

Molly Ball

No, she wouldn’t answer it.

Sean Illing

But she must have thought about Trump’s reality and how we got here as a country. That’s not to say the Democratic Party is responsible for Trump – that’s absurd. But there is no way to tell the story of this era without struggling with the failures of the Democratic Party and, for better or worse, it is part of it.

Molly Ball

I tried to involve her in a conversation about what she believed went wrong in 2016 and she doesn’t want to look back. There are many explanations for what happened, and it is really difficult to find out what is wrong with a party that wins the popular vote. Because you can’t say, well, we have turned the American public against us and our positions are all unpopular when your candidate wins the popular vote and there are many other unforeseen events.

She has said several times that she thinks the population is very much angry because of the worsening of income inequality and the hangover from the 2008 financial crisis, which she would have liked to do more about, but failed to do it because of Republican opposition in Congress.

Nancy Pelosi’s political philosophy, explained

MacMillan

Sean Illing

The point is, and if you point this out in the book, you can look at Pelosi’s approach here and call it blind or a refusal to think about what went wrong, but this is just her philosophy.

Molly Ball

Yes, I think that’s right. Ultimately, she is much more concerned about what she can do about something than the theories about why things are the way they are. One word one of her mentors used for her was “operational.” She is always focused on what she can do in a given situation, given the limitations she faces. That’s how she approaches her job.

Sean Illing

But she clearly has ideas on how to win in 2020 and beyond –

Molly Ball

I’ve talked to her a lot about how she feels the Democrats should run in 2020 and what she believes are the elements of a successful campaign. And there you see the seed of a criticism of what she thinks the Democrats were previously insufficiently focused. She was a big part of developing the Democrat strategy in 2018, and was all about ignoring Trump and staying focused on kitchen table issues, particularly healthcare and economics. The message was, “We’re going to protect Medicare, we’re going to expand Medicare.” It was a whole New Deal campaign message.

She doesn’t think Democrats are going to win the Electoral College by campaigning for Medicare-for-all. And she says that when you say you take away people’s healthcare, even if it is to give them something better in the long run, they consider it “threatening.” So she does believe that Democrats should run to the center if they want to win a national campaign and win the electoral college.

Sean Illing

Despite all her pragmatism to be issues on which she refuses to compromise, even if it means the Democratic Party is losing those uneducated white men in the middle of the country.

Molly Ball

I think there are certain values ​​that she says are non-negotiable, such as gay rights. She represented San Francisco in Congress in 1987 when the AIDS crisis peaked and many politicians from both sides refused to speak for that marginalized population, which she always saw as her role. Now she was not in leadership at the time. She represented her district, which was a big problem for her district and her constituents, but she never doubted her dedication to things like that. She was instrumental in bringing the San Francisco Democratic Convention in 1984, which was actually the origin of the whole idea of ​​”San Francisco Liberals.”

And she’s always thought of that as essentially a homophobic slur. She believes that when Republicans say “San Francisco Democrat” they say a dog whistle for gay rights.

Sean Illing

What does she make of all the hatred for her on the right? Isn’t that the ultimate sign of respect?

Molly Ball

That’s her opinion of it. I mean, her rule is, “If I wasn’t effective, I wouldn’t be a target.” And I think there is some truth to that. I think if she were as unhappy as a speaker of the House as some of her predecessors, she wouldn’t be such a barrier to Republican policy goals. If it is true that Obamacare would not have passed without her, well, this is the reason why there is a big, new program that spends a lot of money on giving healthcare to poor people.

So many Republicans, especially those on the inside of the legislative process, kind of have a reluctant respect for her because she is good at her job and because she is a hard negotiator and always able to keep her caucus in line to keep her.

Sean Illing

What do you think will be her legacy?

Molly Ball

I think it is her historical achievement as the first female speaker of the House – that is a major problem. And for that she will go down in history. I think people often lose sight of what a monumental achievement that is. And she had to fight pretty hard to get there.

And then there is her overall effectiveness as a leader, right? You will talk to experts from Congress and they will tell you that she is one of the most effective convention leaders in modern history, however you measure it.

You have to go back to a Sam Rayburn or an LBJ to see a legislator so effective at working on the levers of power. As Rahm Emanuel said to me in one of my interviews with him, “Many Democrats feel uncomfortable using power. Nancy Pelosi is not. “And she never was.

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