The blogosphere, and everyone who gives a damn about the U.S Constitution, is buzzing this week about Democratic legislators' craven capitulation on the Bush administration's new FISA law that has immunized invasions of our private communications by their "national security surveillance" spooks. Yes, that is what the law effectively does; see this. The Bushies yelped "terror, terror"; the Dems caved -- again. Pissing on the people seems to come too easily to elected Dems ...
The more folks look at the debacle, the more comes out about the tactical blunders (or possible perfidy) of the Democratic leadership, especially Majority Leader Harry Reid in the Senate and Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the House.
As a long time Pelosi constituent, I'd like to explore the terrible possibility that this episode shows that my congresscritter has, in being elected Speaker, demonstrated the truth of the Peter Principle.
What's the Peter Principle? Propounded by Laurence J. Peter in his 1968 book, this tidbit of pop sociological and business wisdom says:
Or her incompetence. Simply put, I think Pelosi has worked very hard to rise very far in an insiders' system -- and truly mastered the art of such an ascent. Unfortunately, the very skills and instincts honed on the way to becoming the first ever woman to be Speaker of the House make her unable to lead effectively on contentious issues.
But that doesn't tell much about how she climbed the ladder to her current status.
That story requires going back quite a long time. From 1964 to 1983, the Congressional seat Pelosi now occupies was held by Phil Burton. Burton was a kind of liberal we don't often see these days: a tough guy with principles. The National Park Service has put up a surprisingly good bio him as part of its site for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of his legacies:
On the home front, in San Francisco, Burton built a political force usually referred to as "the machine." Up and down the ranks of officeholders, aspiring Democratic pols had to get right with Burton. And lots of the better people in San Francisco politics over the last forty years came out of that axis.
When Phil Burton died, in office, he had no trouble bequeathing his seat to his wife, Sala. The new Burton won two elections herself, but died two months into her second term. On her death bed, in 1987, she designated Nancy Pelosi as her successor.
San Francisco leftists by that time had come to feel that perhaps the Congressional seat wasn't merely the property of a Burton to give away. Maybe the voters should have a say. As well, new forces were maturing in the city -- in particular, gay folks were contesting for "liberal" leadership, often to the discomfort of the former Irish- and Italian-American elites. Harry Britt, a gay former Methodist minister and city Supervisor, became their standard bearer.
Pelosi was not well known to the Democratic electorate in the city. Her Democratic credentials were as a party fundraiser, a party insider -- not a resume that gives a person a wide public following. We didn’t really know what she stood for.
The primary election triggered by Sala Burton's death was one hell of a campaign. I remember it as the time when a generation of political consultants who come out of 1970s radicalism, often with the United Farm Workers Union, jumped to the side where the money was -- Pelosi's side. Meanwhile, a younger generation of budding progressive consultants and pols cut their teeth working for Britt. It is hard at this distance in time to understand what a radical thing it was to have a openly gay man running for Congress -- one way to gauge it is to realize that two years later, in 1989, San Francisco defeated a domestic partnership referendum.
Pelosi barely squeaked through the primary, defeating Britt by a 36-32 percent margin. And ever since, she's had clear electoral sailing. The only question in our biennial elections is whether a token leftist opposition candidate will out poll the token Republican sacrifice.
The most memorable public actions I remember my congressperson taking have been condemnations of China's human rights record. In 1991, she got into a fracas with Chinese police while trying to visit Tiananmen Square. Whether her activism on these issues has been a nod to hard-line anti-Communist Chinese-Americans in San Francisco, or signs of authentic commitment to human rights, these are the only occasions on which I remember her standing out from the generality of quietly liberal Dems. (Sara at Next Hurrah initiated a fascinating conversation about where Pelosi learned her values that might bear on this question.)
Closer to home, Pelosi has not always been a liberal force. She can be counted on to endorse status quo, business-friendly Dems against populist pols. She negotiated the conversion of the Presidio Army base into a "public-private partnership" that must pay its own way, instead its becoming a National Park -- this particularly rankles as the site is in the middle of Phil Burton's magnificent Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
But on balance, Pelosi hasn't been a terrible Congressperson. Unlike that other San Francisco product, the execrably authoritarian Diane Feinstein, there have been years when this leftist could vote for her.
And she rose up the ranks -- ranks of what during her tenure was mostly a minority caucus, so some of these positions probably had less cachet than they might have if Democrats had been the majority. She served on the Appropriations and Intelligence committees, the latter as the ranking minority member. In 2001, she became Minority Whip, defeating Rep. Steny Hoyer; in 2002, she rose to Majority Leader of the battered, somewhat cowed, minority Democratic caucus. In both positions she was "first" woman.
And so, after the Democrats took a majority in the House in 2006, Pelosi became Speaker. She supported Rep. John Murtha for Majority Whip -- but Murtha lost out to Rep. Steny Hoyer. Pelosi and Hoyer are the House Democratic leadership today.
Now that is clearly a tale of insider intrigue. Pelosi's rise wasn't a triumph of parliamentary proficiency (under the Republicans, no Democratic maneuvering was possible) or a mark of command on policy issues. Pelosi got to the top though some combination of cajoling, flattering, funding and soothing some 200 plus, mostly male, mostly egocentric, peers. And obviously, she learned and practiced the right mix of skills to do this very competently. It is no small accomplishment to become the first woman Speaker. She should be admired for it.
But her caucus is cowed. When I was part of a delegation to her San Francisco office in May, her aide pretty much admitted that Pelosi was concerned that some of her own members would rebel if she didn't let a Bush-friendly Iraq funding bill come to the floor. As Speaker she could block it, but she wouldn't because her own members would turn on her. That is, Pelosi's status as Speaker is hostage to letting Bush get his way. And there we have the FISA collapse in a nutshell.
I fear Pelosi has risen to her "level of incompetence" -- she excelled at becoming Speaker, but seems unable to be the Speaker. Bush (or Karl Rove, or Dick Cheney) is setting the House agenda and Pelosi doesn't seem able to change this.
CORRECTION in the interest of historical accuracy: A friend writes: "I was present at the decision to anoint Sala. -- Phil had nothing to do with it. Like so many hard drinking hard smoking men he made no provision for his early death."