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What would Speaker Pelosi do?

By PHILIP GAILEY
Published July 16, 2006


House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a California Democrat whose every utterance and move is red meat for the conservative ideologues and bloggers who demonize her as a left-wing radical. She is not just any liberal, mind you. She is a California liberal - you know, the kind who can't be trusted to defend God, the flag or the sanctity of marriage. In this year's election battle for control of the House, we can expect Republicans to try to make Pelosi as scary to voters as Democrats made Newt Gingrich back in the '90s.

For Republican conservatives, the only thing worse than losing majority control of the House to Democrats in the fall elections would be to see Pelosi become speaker of the House, a job no woman has ever held. And if Hillary Clinton is elected president two years after Pelosi picks up the speaker's gavel, that would leave inconsolable conservatives with one rock to cling to - a right-leaning Supreme Court that may be President Bush's real domestic legacy.

The sharp-tongued Pelosi makes no apologies for her liberal philosophy. She opposes a constitutional ban on flag burning. She supports a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, gay rights, a higher minimum wage and abortion rights. She wants to roll back President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and she has been a harsh critic of Bush's bungling of the war in Iraq - "a grotesque mistake," she calls it - and his disregard of civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.

So how scary does that make Pelosi, a Catholic who was born into an Italian-American family in Baltimore, where her father was mayor? I'm sure many Americans disagree with her on some or most of those issues. But if they listen to what Pelosi is saying these days, voters might decide they like what they are hearing from this 66-year-old political warrior.

The "radical" agenda her critics accuse her of promoting is rather modest by Washington standards. If Democrats win control of the House, she said they will push for lower interest rates on student loans, a higher minimum wage and a share of the royalties from oil companies. In fact, Pelosi vows that Democrats will not support another pay raise for members of Congress until lawmakers increase the minimum wage.

In an interview last week with the Wall Street Journal, Pelosi said Democrats would try to repeal Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and use the money to pay down the deficit - not for new spending. On this, she admits she would probably face stiff resistance from many House Democrats, especially the chairmen of key committees, who have been waiting for more than a decade to get their hands on the government's purse strings again.

Pelosi insists that she is committed to a "pay as you go" approach that would require any new spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget or tax increases. The Democratic leader also told the Journal she wants to crack down on "earmarks," also known as pork-barrel spending. She probably knows that asking her Democratic colleagues to go along with that is like asking hogs not to root.

Some or all of these issues may resonate with voters fed up with the fiscal irresponsibility and ethics rot of the Republican-controlled Congress. But Democrats may be missing an opportunity by not offering a bolder agenda to address some of the nation's most difficult challenges, including budget deficits, health care and the coming crisis in Medicare spending. Democrats know that dealing with these issues will require some politically painful choices they are not willing to make. They may be underestimating the voters.

In her interview, Pelosi said Republicans "are dying for us to put out some blimps," or big-ticket spending programs like universal health care. Instead, she said the Democrats' first health care goal would be to lower the cost of Medicare prescription drugs by forcing the government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies, something the Republicans refused to do in designing the drug benefit.

Democrats shouldn't get too excited about a restoration on Capitol Hill. Even if they regain control of the House, don't expect them to turn things upside down. They would need to retake both the House and the Senate to control the legislative agenda, and even then they would have to deal with President Bush, whose term doesn't expire until January 2009.

It's hard to begrudge Democrats their optimism about the message they plan to take to the voters. But before I put any money down on this midterm election, I'd like to know what Karl Rove has in mind for the Democrats this fall. It probably won't be pretty.