On a Thursday morning in July, as the midterm elections were just starting to heat up, four members of MoveOn.org's San Francisco chapter sat around a table in the office of their local congresswoman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Chapter leader Erin Gannon, who was wearing boots and rolled-up jeans and clutching a pink motorcycle helmet, wanted to know if Pelosi would sign MoveOn's "Fight Washington Corruption Pledge," a petition in support of campaign finance and lobbying reforms. It was the national MoveOn organization's biggest priority that summer.
Pelosi couldn't be there. She was in Washington trying to push through bills on health care and financial reform, for which she was being attacked by the GOP as a San Francisco liberal, out of touch with the rest of America. In the following months, the label would become so entrenched and radioactive that some of Pelosi's Democratic House colleagues would forcefully distance themsevles from her on the campaign trail. The label is now her biggest cross to bear as she seeks relection as Democratic minority leader.
But during the MoveOn meeting in San Francisco, it quickly became clear that Pelosi wasn't going to be the kind of ally that the local activists had hoped for. Her field representative, Mark Herbert, said, "As speaker she doesn't really sign..."
"Anything?" Gannon asked.
"She really doesn't even vote," Herbert replied.
When Gannon asked if Pelosi would at least push the pledge's goals with her members, Herbert suggested that was MoveOn's job, not the speaker's. "It always comes down to the nitty gritty of what we can pass and what we can get votes for," he said. "So in the end, one way to help is to support those congressional districts that are in..."
"Nebraska," Gannon offered.
"That are in marginal districts."
Both the speaker and many left-leaning activists understand how she's contstrained in the pursuit of issues that they most care about. Throughout her speakership, Pelosi has displayed the kind of realpolitik that belies her Left Coast image: She presided over the axing of the public option from the health care bill, the passage of a climate bill that the Sierra Club nearly mutinied on, and Wall Street reforms that were derided on the left as too weak. In most important respects, Pelosi's speaker tenure was no more liberal than the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, but those details have been lost in the face of Republican caricatures of her as the "speaker from San Francisco."
I asked Chris Nahon, a Democratic political consultant and crisis communication expert who advised Bill Clinton, how much this matters for Pelosi going forward. "Some of that just comes with the territory of being the speaker of the House," he said. "John Boehner is pretty quickly gonna become known for being the country club, golf-playing, cigarette-smoking, orange-hair-looking Republican. That's already happening. Gingrich had this; at some level Denny Hastert did; you go back to Tip O'Neill. Part of being the speaker of the House is that you are going to be caricatured in some ways."
During the Bush years, Pelosi proved to be a highly effective minority leader, orchestrating the takover of the House in 2006 after 12 years of Republican rule. She's an excellent fundraiser who commands the loyalty of her remaining members. She's originally from Baltimore and "has got a tough Baltimore pragmatic play-to-win component to her," Nahon says. It could be that a more effective voice emerges from the Democratic caucus in the next two years, but for now the left is sticking with her. "Speaker Pelosi is a passionate, principled leader and we need her to stay on and keep fighting for progressive priorities," MoveOn told its members on Friday in an email blast. "Can you call and tell her you're counting on her to lead Democrats in the new Congress?"