Power Centers

Nancy Pelosi's Dilemma: To Fight Or Retreat

Nancy Pelosi on ABC News
screenshot/ABC News

You don't get to be the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives without grit, attentiveness to the details of retail politics and the ability to see the big picture.

So it should be fascinating to watch as Speaker Nancy Pelosi presumably deploys all those demonstrated skills that got her to the House's top post to shape her future.

Clearly she's a fighter. But is this a time to fight from the reduced platform of minority leader or to retreat and try to fight by other means for the liberal causes dear to her? That's her dilemma.

If she plans to throw in the towel, she gave no early indications of that in her first post-Election Day TV interview on Wednesday evening with ABC News' Dianne Sawyer.

Asked more than once about her plans, she demurred:

I'll have a conversation with my caucus, I'll have a conversation with my family, and pray over it, and decide how to go forward. But today isn't that day.

It's clear there are both internal and external forces pulling on her. She doesn't quit easily. How else to explain her ability to revive the health-care legislation which seemed dead at one point and push it to passage? Or her efforts, steady but unsuccessful, to pressure the Bush Administration into ending the Iraq War?

But she also is known as of the best vote counters in Congress which, by definition, means she's a political realist. So she knows just how badly Democrats were beaten on Tuesday.

The conventional political wisdom when a party suffers the kind of defeat just meted out to Democrats is that the leadership steps aside for new faces.

The centrifugal forces were captured in a Daily Beast piece.

“She was reelected with 80 percent in her district,” said the inner-circle source. “She is not going to pull a Sarah Palin and ditch her constituents.” Adds this source: “She always says politics is not for the faint of heart. She is not one to back away from a fight.”

“Nancy has no plan,” one of her aides said Tuesday night. The aide expects her to retire at the end of this next term, reasoning that she'll have many more opportunities more interesting than being in the House minority.

“The logic of the situation is that she should step down,” said Ron Peters, co-author of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics. “She’s accomplished what she could accomplish. She would still bring some assets, but her ability to help is now greatly diminished. She’s likely to conclude that the party needs a new face.”

NPR's Brian Naylor had a retrospective on Morning Edition on Pelosi's career and accomplishments which, arguably, will be viewed by historians as one of the most productive speakerships in history in terms of legislation and controversy.

For instance, he recalls the questions surrounding what Pelosi knew about the use by the CIA of waterboarding, the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

She contradicted intelligence officials who said she had been informed of their use of waterboarding on known or suspected terrorists in U.S. hands.

An excerpt from the Web version of Brian's radio piece:

That spring, Pelosi faced another, more personal test: whether she was telling the truth when she denied ever having been briefed by the CIA about enhanced interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists. The issue led to weeks of accusations and recriminations about which Pelosi refused to comment. When she finally did address the issue she leveled a serious charge against the CIA.

"They talked about interrogations that they had done and said, 'We want to use enhanced techniques, and we have legal opinions that say that they are OK. We are not using waterboarding.' That's the only mention that they were not using it. And we now know that earlier they were," she said. "So yes, I am saying that they are misleading — that the CIA was misleading the Congress."

Meanwhile, earlier this year, Matthew Green, a political scientist at Catholic University, noodled on the question of whether Pelosi has earned a place amid the great speakers of U.S. history, names such as Henry Clay of Kentucky, Thomas Reed of Maine, Sam Rayburn of Texas and Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts.

He concluded that, yes, she was "a strong candidate for historical greatness."

But then he said this in his Roll Call opinion piece:

But there is one other important feature of many great Speakers that Pelosi has not yet had a chance to demonstrate: critical leadership at the end of one’s tenure. For instance, less than a year before his death, Rayburn managed to win a tough floor fight against southern conservative Democrats, limiting their influence on the Rules Committee — the beginning of the end of their dominance in Congress. And in his last year in office, O’Neill narrowly blocked a major funding proposal for the Nicaraguan Contras, delivering a major defeat to the Reagan White House.

Of course, Pelosi’s speakership is not finished yet. If she can turn the passage of health care into an enduring basis of power for future legislative victories, she could well ensure her place among the great Speakers of history.

Those words are full of irony now. Her speakership is indeed finished. And she obviously fell short of creating an "enduring basis of power." So while she made history, by Green's standards she wouldn't make it onto the top rung of historically great speakers.

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