Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is currently engaged in a demonstration of how the objectives of public service can become so distorted in the minds of those with power that they lose their ethical bearings completely.
By many standards of legislative success, Pelosi’s tenure as the leader of the House of Representatives has been a triumph. Nevertheless, she has become the face of the epic rejection of Democrats at all levels of government in the recent election. Her personal approval rating outside her native San Francisco hovers in single digits, and the Republicans successfully made “Fire Pelosi” a successful campaign slogan. Voters did fire Pelosi. Fairly of unfairly, she came to symbolize the arrogance of power, a contempt for the opinions of ordinary citizens, and runaway government. Like Harry Reid, her counterpart in the Senate, Pelosi’s talents lie in getting things done behind the scenes, not making herself look good in front of them. Now, with the country no longer mesmerized by Barack Obama and souring on the Democratic leadership and agenda, she needs to get off the stage.
But she refuses to go. Historically, most speakers whose party has been turned out of power accept responsibility for the defeat and allow new leadership to emerge. It is the logical course: only raw ego argues for anything else. Many believed that Pelosi would resign her seat and leave the House altogether. To the surprise of political observers, however, she announced that she would seek the post of Minority Leader, setting off a power struggle in her party. Current Majority Leader, Steny Hoyer, announced that he would seek the #2 power role of Minority Whip, pitting him against current whip James Clyburn, and also pitting Democratic moderates, represented by Hoyer, against the influential African-American leadership in the party, represented by Clyburn.
Meanwhile, Republicans are rejoicing. Pelosi’s return will look like one more Democratic refusal to respect the will of the public, and the prospect of having the same leadership trio of Obama, Reid and Pelosi leading the party after its electoral dressing down seems like a dream come true.
Pelosi’s decision is bad for her party and her colleagues, who have been loyal to her. It is also bad for the country, even if one believes, as many do not, that her imperious leadership style is justified by the legislative success it produces for progressive policies. Washington and the public trust are being poisoned by anger, cynicism and partisanship, and Pelosi shares the blame for all three. The Democrats desperately need a new style and a new symbol in Congress, and most in and out of the Democratic Party know it.
Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to step aside places her own ego above the needs of public service and country, and is as blatant an example of power corrupting judgment as one can imagine. At a time when all ethical considerations argue for her to swallow her pride and let others take over, she is willing to jeopardize not only her party’s comity, unity and image but her own legislative achievements.
In politics, having one’s most dedicated adversaries cheering your decision is a strong clue that you are missing something. In this case, what Nancy Pelosi is missing are accountability, humility, fairness, and common sense.