So what’s the deal, I’m asked these days, with Pelosi and me, are we still in love or what?
Well, lemme assure you that “what” continues to be the answer. Is she the most powerful Speaker in a century, as lots of people are saying right now? There’s even a Guardian article asking if she’s the most powerful woman in US history.
Admittedly this is not as high a standard here, where we’ve yet to have a female Chief Executive. And if you think about powerful women in US history, at least those who were politically powerful independent of their husbands, the vast majority of them are still alive. Women couldn’t even vote in most states until 1920. Eleanor Roosevelt, to take an example, was powerful in many ways, not nearly all of them based on her husband; but her influence was not that of a Speaker of the House. Governors like Sebelius and Palin are surely powerful — in their states. Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton? Secretary of State reports to somebody, in fact serves at his, underline his, discretion. Speaker of the House is #3 to the football. So, yes, I think by process of elimination she’s the most powerful woman in American political history.
Most powerful Speaker in a hundred years? I’m not a historian of the Congress, so I don’t know how much my opinion counts on this topic. But it seems to me that power involves more than reacting, it involves acting with some purpose. Other than self-maintenance, which of course all power is about. To me a powerful Speaker would convince, or perhaps I should say “convince”, other Representatives to act to change things, to move the ball down the field.
What I see Pelosi as doing is realizing that the Reid blows with the wind, and Obama’s never fought for anything. Her job title will change later this year, she’ll become The Woman Who Used to Be The Most Powerful Woman in US History, if she doesn’t get a bill passed. This gives her just as much leverage as Obama bought himself by making clear that he needed a bill, any bill: namely, none. It does, however, provide two vital items: desperation, and a clear goal. Or, put another way, I’m walking into a jewelry store with my girlfriend wearing a sign that says, “I have to buy a ring today.”
Given the clear goal, and the fact that she’s the Democrat with the most personal status, not to say power, to lose, she was able to coerce a reluctant administration and a weak Majority Leader to engage fully in passing a large bill. Their alternative was a Republican Speaker. Now she’s hoping that the size of the bill, its complexity and time-release nature, will get her over the November hump.
It’s a big gamble, because it’s easier to attack the bill ideologically than to point to immediate benefits for most people. And then there’s the gamble that the substance of the bill will turn out to be to peoples’ liking, which I personally doubt.
But the thing is, she had no choice. In chess terms, she’s not acting with the initiative in hand, she’s responding to threats. I don’t think of that as powerful, though in a sense it is. Being able to organize a successful defense of your citadel indicates prowess, no doubt. But what she defended was her personal situation.
Unless you see the bill as a big advance. There’s the rub. Pelosi would probably argue in essence that although it’s a big giveaway to the insurance and drug companies, she’s created something to build on. She’s not stupid enough to think the bill “covers” a single new person, regardless of her press releases.
The bill mandates the buying of insurance, but it does not, as far as I can tell, require insurance to cover the medical procedures you will need. And notice I say will, because it’s a dead stone lock that you will need them. So how can a business bet that you won’t need them, and still turn a profit? By goosing expenses, of course, but mainly by denying coverage. The bill lists reasons you can’t be denied coverage, and anyone who’s ever dealt with an insurance company knows what that means: the company will find a different reason when it stops being profitable to cover you.
So it seems to me that the overall effect of the bill is basically a negative one. Rather than attempting to fix the problem that we agree is likely to destroy the economy, we’re handing the whole mess over to the people who caused the problem and continue to profit from its existence. That’ll help.
I suspect the Speaker might argue in private that the bill has a chance of making things better precisely because it fails so utterly to make a difference in how we do things. Now that we’re criminalizing those who don’t buy insurance, it’ll be even more obvious how much we needed a public option, that watered-down version of what two-thirds of Americans have supported in polls for decades, single-payer. So Pelosi can claim to have put the inquiry to the country: do we need a public option? Thank God someone had the courage to state that question.
It’s certainly not leadership. Whether it’s power depends on whether your definition of power requires something other than self-preservation. Mine does, so I don’t think of Pelosi as a particularly powerful Speaker. Undoubtedly she’s an astute political player, she grew up in a political family; but she’s also working against the backdrop of the milquetoasts the Democrats have become.
To me the health care bill, despite having some positive features, seems like a failure, overall worse than no bill at all. But it could turn out that it’s only an initial failure which we’ll work to remedy for the next several decades, gradually producing some approximation of a reasonable system. Certainly we’ll be stuck trying to fix the problems Pelosi’s members forced her to insert for a long time. So she’s definitely made a mark on society, and that’s one definition of power.