As Nancy Pelosi hands off the Speaker’s gavel to John Boehner today, she also hands him a tough act to follow. Despite insistent attempts to malign her during her four years as Speaker of the House, the California congresswoman turns out to have been arguably the most effective person in that post in U.S. history. And it’s not just rah-rah Democrats saying so.
“We’re looking at an extraordinary set of accomplishments over a brief period of time,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “She ranks with the most consequential speakers, certainly in the last 75 years.”
Pelosi faced a House so divided along party lines that she couldn’t count on a single Republican vote for legislation–which means that she had to wrangle fellow Democrats to demonstrate a discipline and unity they have not been famous for. Out of that unity emerged a record of public policy triumphs unmatched since the Great Society legislation of the 1960s, according to University of Oklahoma political science professor Cindy Simon Rosenthal. “And much of it is because of her,” says Rosenthal.
Health-care reform. Financial reform. Ethics reform.
A $787 billion stimulus.
The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. A minimum wage increase. Student aid. Extending health coverage to 11 million children.
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
All of this legislation was very important to women and reflected Pelosi’s feminist values. “She is for women’s rights unequivocally,” says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (and publisher of Ms.). Pelosi herself told me in my interview with her in the new issue of Ms. magazine,
Everything from rocking the baby to serving in the military to heading corporations—removing barriers to participating is a responsibility we all have. It’s not only good for women, it’s good for America.
With the Republicans now back in charge of the House, Pelosi has her new job (which was also her old job)—as House Democratic leader—cut out for her. Hard-won gains such as health reform are being threatened with repeal. Pelosi today decried such efforts, saying it would “do very serious violence to the national debt and deficit.” Let alone to the health and wallets of American families.
House Republicans may have the votes, but Democrats still have Pelosi to lead a spirited defense. And who better? Rep. Jan Schakowsky describes her as “absolutely the strongest, most disciplined and focused person I’ve ever met.”
And Feminist Majority Foundation vice president (and Ms. executive editor) Katherine Spillar puts it, “In Boehner’s quest to sabotage health-care reform, he’ll face a tough opponent—perhaps the toughest in history.”
So Boehner gets the gavel today, but Pelosi’s still got the platform, the guts and the smarts to keep the accomplishments of her tenure from being dismantled. Knowing how she stood up to withering attacks and seemingly insurmountable political odds, we’re placing bets on her.
Photo: Cover of Ms. Magazine Winter 2011 issue.