Pelosi Learns to Follow, Not Just Lead

  • Share
  • Read Later

Newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California speaks to reporters as newly elected Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer from Maryland (R) and Rep. John Murtha from Pennsylvania look on, during a press conference November 16, 2006, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Nancy Pelosi showed us something important about herself this week. If Tip O'Neill thought that all politics was local, Pelosi's view is that it's personal. But what may have more significance in the long run is what her caucus showed her — that, unlike the Republicans they are replacing, they will not march in lockstep at every dictate from their leaders. And if there is any good news for the Democrats from the entire episode, that is it.

Congressman Steny Hoyer, the man what had waited in line for the job, gave Pelosi's candidate John Murtha a thumpin', as the President might have put it. That there was even a fight at all, however, is because of Pelosi. Against all precedent and good sense, she stepped into the election with not only an endorsement of her longtime ally, but a shocking strong-arm campaign to win the job for him. She all but told incoming freshmen: "That's a nice little committee assignment you're asking for. It would be a shame if anything happened to it."

The moderate Hoyer won in part because he had the support of the committee chairmen, who are the liberal old guard. They put practicality over ideology, which is just what voters asked them to do on November 7. And Hoyer also held the support of those freshmen. They appreciated the time and money that Hoyer had put into getting them elected in 2006, and understand that unless they are independent, they won't get reelected in 2008. As the Brookings Institution's Tom Mann, one of the smartest scholars of Congress, put it: "The Democrats today saved Pelosi from a disastrous start to her leadership."

Modern politics have been hard on House Speakers. O'Neill was the last one to give up the office under circumstances of his choosing; all four since him have been ousted from it, under one set of circumstances or another. If Pelosi is to avoid that fate, she must learn how to control the impulses and instincts that those around her say define her character. She will have to broaden her circle, trust her colleagues and take to heart the words of the man who managed to hold the job longer than anyone else in history. "You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you," Sam Rayburn once said, "unless you know how to follow, too."