There’s a knee-jerk aspect to much of the criticism of Pelosi, of course, because she is the most powerful woman in U.S. political history—and we know what the problem is with that. But even to liberals, Pelosi can come across as shrill, strident, too rich. Humorless, odd, tone-deaf. She’s a kind of Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, imperious with her power and relishing her ability to attack, dropping bombs like “If people are ripping your face off, you have to rip their faces off.” She’s a talking-points machine, who is by the way not above compromising on principle to protect the old boys, like Charlie Rangel, a castrating San Franciscan shrew who banned smoking in some communal areas of the House and makes everyone in congressional cafeterias eat with biodegradable utensils. It does seem like the more we see of her, the less we like her. Pelosi’s national numbers have begun a queasy drop of some ten to fifteen points, and two weeks ago, a poll of Californians put her approval rating at 34 percent, down from 48 percent in March.
All of which might inspire some worry in a person who was paying attention. But Pelosi, pretty much, isn’t. She doesn’t often watch cable news or follow blogs, and her cell phone of choice is a Motorola Razr. She definitely isn’t watching Fox, and can’t really tell Sean Hannity apart from the other anchors. For the most part, Pelosi is in a bubble, where much of what passes for politics doesn’t penetrate. Her face, the one with the frozen smile, is her mask. She often seems unaware of how it looks. For her, the world consists of her members, her donors, and her family, plus President Obama and Rahm Emanuel, whom she sometimes speaks to several times a day. As far as she’s concerned, anything else, and that includes the press, is a petty distraction from her “historic work,” as she likes to say, before ticking off the accomplishments of Congress on her watch over the last two and a half years: the passage of large increases in college aid and veterans’ health care, raising fuel-efficiency standards and the minimum wage, and ethics reform, not to mention the stimulus, bailout, and a climate-change bill that she masterfully shepherded through the House—where it passed by a margin of one vote.
And then of course there’s health care. Before she unveiled her $894 billion bill last week, she and her liberal allies were playing a game of chicken with the public option—“the robust public option,” in the jargon—for months. The base, the bloggers, the Obamaniacs who have lately been losing a little faith in their hero, wanted their due, having been rolled by the moderates over and over, at least that’s how they felt. The robust public option was not only a policy but a kind of battle flag, and Pelosi was the one carrying it, saying just what they wanted to hear. “A trigger is an excuse for not doing anything,” she said, dismissing out of hand the vaunted Olympia Snowe proposal, and breathed fire at the insurance companies: “It’s almost immoral, what they are doing,” she said. “They are the villains in this.”
But Pelosi has got a House to run, and her progressive friends were not the only ones who had to be taken care of. Out of sight, politics in the House was much squishier, and Pelosi was trying to tell everyone what they wanted to hear while counting votes, which she does with precision. The president was nowhere to be found; “It’s like waiting for Godot over here,” says Representative Anthony Weiner.
The face the public saw was that cartoon liberal—but in the bubble, the story is a little different. Privately, she was getting frustrated with the progressives and their whining and carping. “There they are, posing for holy pictures,” she likes to say. “Oh, they want to be sainted.” Noble aims are one thing, but this goop is quite another. To her, you can stand in the gallery and have a media moment. Or you can come into her office and pass this legislation.
Some of this internal struggle became visible when Harry Reid, after acting milquetoasty all summer, decided that the Senate’s public option should include an opt-out provision for states that, by the standards of the Senate, was robust indeed. Suddenly, Pelosi’s unruly flock became the story, and it became clear how tough it was to be in charge. She’d called an emergency vote count on the robust public option—never a good sign—but the results were inconclusive. She looked, truth be told, a little weak, which, being the first woman in her position, is not her preferred method of presentation. But she’ll do anything to win, and weakness, in this case, might have been good politics. The bill she came out with last week was less robust by a long shot than the one she’d been shilling for all year—but it keeps her moderates and freshmen happy for another day, and still may be the camel’s nose under the tent for a single-payer system (which is, of course, what Pelosi supports: “I’ve been for single payer for 30 years,” she tells me, “and back then we were with signs in the street and all that”). And she’d given the progressives as much as she could, which was commitment almost to the finish line.