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That is because at the core of Pelosi is a pragmatism decidedly at odds with her liberal image one more in keeping with her background on the Appropriations Committee, where what matters in the end is not so much what you believe as what you can deliver. "She obviously has her own point of view on many issues, but she's recognized from Day One that you have to find the center of gravity in your caucus," says Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, who runs the Democrats' campaign operation. "I think early on, a lot of people underestimated her ability to find that center of gravity."
All year long, Pelosi has been playing the legislative game at a level far deeper than most observers know or even understand. When Pelosi saw she had to accept a weaker version of a public option for the uninsured and cave on abortion rights to get a health care bill done in November, she took that deal, sold it to her liberals and passed Obama's signature domestic priority with a five-vote margin. What few people on the outside saw were the countless hours she had been devoting to a much bigger challenge: working out the quirks in Medicare-funding formulas that were pitting rural and Midwestern lawmakers against the rest of the House. "It was going to bring down the bill. It was the most important problem and the one that took the most time to solve," says a Pelosi aide. "And in the end, there wasn't a peep about it."
Big Inside the Beltway Not Outside
As 2009 comes to a close, Pelosi is not taking a breather, though many of those around her wish she would. It was largely at the Speaker's instigation, Miller and others say, that the White House and Congress moved up their timetable for a new jobs package rather than waiting until January after they finish health care. "Our members go home every week. They put their hand on a very, very hot stove the concerns of their constituents," Pelosi says. "I kind of insisted because I don't see how we can not do something before the end of the year. It takes a long time, as we have seen, for legislation to turn into a paycheck."
All this is why Pelosi topped the list of most admired House Democrats in a recent poll of 200 Washington insiders by National Journal. But she doesn't translate so well when you get beyond the Beltway. She comes off on TV as a scripted cartoon, icy and imperious, a dream come true for late-night comedians and the right. No attack on her, it seems, can be ruled out of bounds. On Fox News, Glenn Beck has joked about putting poison in her wine (she doesn't drink); comedian-commentator Dennis Miller has called her a "shrieking harridan magpie." Conan O'Brien joked that Pelosi used her summer break to "tone down my Botox expression from 'just Tasered' to 'an ice cube down my blouse.'"
Then there are the times when she throws her talking points off a cliff and follows them over the edge. Pelosi found herself in a monthlong war with the CIA in the spring, after she declared that agency briefers had misled her in 2002 about the nature of the interrogation techniques being used against terrorism suspects. Her GOP predecessor Newt Gingrich, who has had some experience with verbal self-immolation, called for her ouster: "She's made America less secure by sending a signal to the men and women defending our country that they can't count on their leaders to defend them." Her fellow Democrats ultimately rallied around her, but not before Pelosi's approval ratings dipped into the 30s which put her in the same territory as Gingrich during his stormy tenure. Her poll numbers have yet to recover.
Those close to her insist that she is oblivious to all of this. "I remember sitting in her apartment not long ago watching TV, and she walks into the room, and I say, 'Hey, that's Sean Hannity. He goes on television every night and talks about how you're going to destroy the world,'" her daughter Alexandra says. "And she asks, 'Which one's Hannity?'"
But if Pelosi doesn't let it rattle her, that doesn't mean she isn't taking note. The four televisions that are tucked into a cabinet in her office are constantly on, set to C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC and yes Fox News. Visitors to her Capitol suite are offered seats with a sweeping view of the National Mall, in part so she can sneak peeks at the four screens behind them. Each day, her aides give her 50 to 60 pages of clippings in which she is mentioned. She doesn't like them pulled from the Internet because she wants to know what page of the paper they ran on. Some are returned weeks later with notes in parochial-school penmanship: that's not right. why did they write that?
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