‘We are in the midst of a battle over the ideas that are going to govern our lives.” That’s how Rochelle Schweizer explains the importance of her new book on the women of the hour in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The book is She’s the Boss: The Disturbing Truth about Nancy Pelosi, published by Penguin’s Sentinel imprint, and she talks about it here with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The very last sentence of your book asks, “Is the House that Nancy Pelosi built ready to collapse?” What’s your answer?
ROCHELLE SCHWEIZER: It certainly looks that Nancy Pelosi’s House is pretty shaky and about ready to collapse. But let’s not count her out yet.
LOPEZ: What does that House look like?
SCHWEIZER: Pelosi’s House is showing a lot of wear right about now. She has been pounding the gavel for the last four years, and some of the legislation — the stimulus economic-recovery plan, cap-and-trade, health-care reform — was passed without bipartisan support. Thus, her strategy has made it difficult for some of her vulnerable, moderate colleagues to go home to face their constituents. They are being held responsible for their votes on some of the unpopular legislation she engineered.
LOPEZ: How much of November, nationally, will be about Nancy Pelosi?
SCHWEIZER: I think that the outcome of the election will not only be a referendum on President Obama but also on Nancy Pelosi and the Left’s agenda, which they have successfully pushed, to some extent, onto the electorate. President Obama is certainly an ideological liberal, but Pelosi is the tough, brass-knuckled political boss who has been able to strategize and then execute the agenda. So, yes, this is about Nancy Pelosi.
LOPEZ: Has Nancy Pelosi done what she said she would do as speaker? Cleaning the swamp comes to mind . . .
SCHWEIZER: No, I don’t believe the speaker has followed through with her calls to “drain the GOP swamp.” The swamp is messier than ever. She vowed to clean up the Republicans’ culture of “corruption, cronyism, and incompetence” with her ambitious agenda. This is what the Democrats ran on in 2006 rather than clear policy issues. The result, under Pelosi’s leadership? Spending that is out of control; a massive health-care bill that was passed behind closed doors with provisions (a Pelosi method) that include, among others, expanding Medicaid and fining those who choose not purchase insurance; and the speaker’s blatant sidestepping of Charlie Rangel’s serious ethics charges. In fact, Rangel remained the country’s chief tax writer until he stepped down in March 2010. When Republican majority leader Tom DeLay was admonished by the same committee in 2004, Pelosi said the very next day: “Mr. DeLay has proven himself to be ethically unfit to lead the party.”
LOPEZ: You accuse her of hypocrisy. Isn’t that what we’re all usually accused of when we fall short of our ideals?
SCHWEIZER: Pelosi’s hypocrisy is not just a matter of her falling short. Of course we all fall victim to hypocrisy in the pursuit of our ideals. For Pelosi, her hypocrisy is a means to her ends. She has used this tactic, flawlessly at times, in pursuit of her agenda. Consider her calls to have everyone included in the health-care debate. She told Politico in July 2009, “Every single person in America is an expert on his or her heath care. . . . We have to listen to everybody.” But it became clear she didn’t want to listen to anyone who opposed her plan when she tried to quell the town-hall protesters. She was very clear about how much “everybody” would be involved: We would learn more about the final package once it was enacted.
She also claimed that her new majority would be characterized by “civility, honesty, and fiscal responsibility.” In truth, there has been little fiscal responsibility and the lack of civility has been apparent. Attacking former president George W. Bush as incompetent and dangerous, saying he has no judgment — that’s way beyond just falling short. It is designed to inflict damage. Sometimes her strategy isn’t so watertight, as when she got entangled in her political hypocrisy concerning the waterboarding scandal. She charged that such a practice — which she later revealed she knew about — was a moral blot on the Bush administration. Again, her hypocrisy was a means to her ends.
LOPEZ: Is Nancy Pelosi treated differently by the media because she’s a she?
SCHWEIZER: The media treats Nancy Pelosi differently because she espouses an agenda that they agree with. They may cloak their deferential treatment of her in a manner to reflect the fact that she is a woman. But regardless of her gender, their project is to ignore and shore up both her agenda and her strong-arm methods. Pelosi has been quoted as saying, “If you take the knife off the table, it’s not very frightening anymore.” That is hardly something Newt Gingrich or even Jim Wright would have gotten away with. And if Sarah Palin were speaker of the House, we would certainly see an intolerant media. Their posture toward a woman with Palin’s views would be combative and hostile.
SCHWEIZER: While I do not question Pelosi’s personal faith, I do think it’s important for people to understand the theological gymnastics she performs to justify public-policy positions that are in direct conflict with her faith. It goes to the essence of how she operates to further her agenda. She has received papal lectures, but that has not in any way forced her to retreat from her radical views on abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research. Pelosi has said, “[My parents] didn’t raise me to be the speaker. They raised me to be holy.” She says that her upbringing included working on the side of the angels with her parents. What is dangerous in her rhetoric is that she sees, much as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy did, that a sort of “heaven on earth” is possible if lawmakers will just act progressively and pass bills that will right all the injustices we have caused by our sinful nature.
As I write, “In this way a sort of ‘societal salvation’ becomes possible for those willing to join with the people ‘working on the side of the angels’ (a.k.a. leftists).” She claims she prefers to decouple religion and politics. Yet when it is politically advantageous for her to do so, she sprinkles her speeches with scriptural references. She framed health care as an ethical issue, quoting from the book of Hebrews. She set up climate change similarly, referring to the Old Testament as her guide and inspiration. She said, “To minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.” So, if you don’t agree, you are a sinner. There is no room for honest policy disagreements.
But there is even more to her scriptural references. Her father, “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro, taught her that politics is a game of numbers and coalitions. She realizes that “the Faithful,” what Bill Clinton’s pollster Stanley Greenberg calls white Christians, can pose a serious threat to her radical agenda. She needs to try to close “the God gap” — the large variance between political identification and regular church attendance.
LOPEZ: You argue that she is not an ideologue — but is she not responsible for a most left-wing House?
SCHWEIZER: I do argue that at her core she is not an ideologue. Undoubtedly, she spells out a worldview that is consistently to the left of the American public’s. That is her message, and one that I believe she supports. But there is more. Pelosi is foremost an operational woman who treats politics mainly as the ability to raise money and in turn gain access to resources. She is a product of her liberal base. She understands that her message needs to reflect her fundraising base and her voter base. To raise the unprecedented amounts of money she has, she has had to keep the sources she taps happy with her message. It is her consistent, reliable views on the issues that keeps the money geyser gushing that lead to power and ultimately to control.
LOPEZ: How is the House different under Nancy Pelosi? What is this “boss politics” you write of?
SCHWEIZER: First of all, her leadership and power are clear. Pelosi understands that the more centralized the control, the greater the influence of the power broker. Richard Cohen wrote that during the health-care debate, Pelosi “centralized perhaps unprecedented control in the speaker’s office.” Camille Paglia used the words “hard-won, trench-warfare win” to describe the speaker’s success in the November 2009 health-care push, and described Pelosi’s tactics this way: “Even a basic feminist shibboleth like abortion rights became just another card for Pelosi to deal and swap.” There is more than a little Machiavelli in Pelosi. She doesn’t care if she’s liked.
Second, loyalty is rewarded, even when it doesn’t make sense. This was evident during her support for the late Jack Murtha for majority leader over rival Steny Hoyer. For a political boss, loyalty is at a premium, even if it means supporting someone who has had numerous ethical scrapes. Third, she has been able to convince her colleagues to go along with her big-government plans even in the midst of a recession. She cut enough deals to narrowly pass her climate-change bill as well as the massive health-care-reform legislation — even when her colleagues were looking at polls that showed more than 50 percent of Americans wanted to shelve health-care reform. Members of her House have described her leadership abilities. According to the Los Angeles Times, one of those members called her style “kid gloves and a hidden stiletto.”
LOPEZ: Do you have a top-three list of evidence of “machine fatigue”?
SCHWEIZER: Top three signs of machine fatigue:
1. The trouble she is in has become public. Just recently, 47 of her members fired off a letter to her indicating that they are ready to side with Republicans on extending tax rates on capital gains and dividends. And Pelosi has admitted her vulnerability. She commanded her troops to divvy up their funds and charged those members in safe districts to send checks to vulnerable candidates to save her majority.
2. Some Democrats are not only running from her but running against her. Last month, Indiana Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly distanced himself from her agenda when he charged in a campaign ad that the climate-change legislation was “Nancy Pelosi’s energy tax.”
3. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 56 percent of those asked still disapprove of the health-care overhaul. The taxpayer understands the heavy cost of funding the Left’s machine and doesn’t want to pay the price.
LOPEZ: Why do bamboo mats — which I have no objection to — in the Longworth House Office Building café matter?
SCHWEIZER: I mentioned the bamboo mats to cement in the mind of the reader Pelosi’s overall plan to use taxpayer funds to enforce her greening measures and to pay for her front-line battle against global warming. According to a story in E, an environmental magazine, taxpayers got to pay for a “Green the Capitol” initiative that includes “consultations” with all 7,000 Washington-based employees as well as carbon offsets to deal with the House’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet Pelosi fires up her jets for failed overseas climate summits, nonstop trips to California, and numerous congressional delegations that have included enormous in-flight expenses.
LOPEZ: How did John Dingell get on Nancy Pelosi’s bad side?
SCHWEIZER: John Dingell found himself in Pelosi’s crosshairs for a couple of reasons. First, he was not green enough for her on environmental issues. The needs of his constituents in Detroit were in conflict with Pelosi and her allies’ plans for legislation on climate change and their desire to tax carbon emissions. Pelosi took him on early, and the outcome of a fuel bill in 2007 made it clear that she won that battle. By November 2008, Dingell had been booted out as Energy and Commerce Committee chair, and Henry Waxman, a close Pelosi ally, replaced him. She needed Waxman to push through her flagship issue, climate change.
Dingell made another tactical error. During the epic battle between Pelosi and Steny Hoyer for Democratic whip, Dingell supported Hoyer. Pelosi didn’t forget Dingell’s disloyalty and sent a $10,000 check from her massive war chest to his primary opponent.
LOPEZ: How did you come to write a book about Pelosi? It’s a hard thing to do, isn’t it, when the subject and her intimates aren’t going to talk to you?
SCHWEIZER: After observing Pelosi, especially during the past four years, I found it surprising that so little had been devoted to covering her ascent. Here we had a woman who had broken the marble ceiling, and, beyond a few biographies, there wasn’t a work that explored how she had done it. And there was scant information that in any manner took a more critical approach.
LOPEZ: Why is this book important now?
SCHWEIZER: We are in the midst of a battle over the ideas that are going to govern our lives: whether it will be Pelosi’s vision of utopia — government solutions intended to control people’s lives — or the vision the Founding Fathers had, people living freely and determining their destiny in a nation of unlimited opportunity.
LOPEZ: What can conservatives learn from your book?
SCHWEIZER: Conservatives should first of all be encouraged by it. There is definitely machine fatigue. When conservative ideas are heard accurately, they sell well; when Democratic goals and ideas (especially Pelosi’s brand) become clear, public opinion turns against them. So, instead of campaigning on the issues, they are once again, as in 2006, trying to “dig up dirt” on the Republican candidates. The modus operandi for the Democrats: If you can’t win the argument, change the subject.
Conservatives can also learn that, for the Left to impose their agenda, they need operational people like Pelosi who have access to vast resources. Their success is not based on their agenda alone.
LOPEZ: Is there a non-right-wing audience for it?
SCHWEIZER: Hopefully there is a broader audience for She’s the Boss. It offers insight into Pelosi’s formative years, her grooming and her calculated ascent. I would guess there are many Democrats right now who are not too happy with Nancy Pelosi.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.