On Healthcare, Old-School Pelosi Gave Obama a Lesson in Politics

Old-school politician showed the president how they did things in downtown Baltimore.

By + More

By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The president was saved by the belle.

Congress is a lot like high school--and the endgame of the House healthcare insurance reform vote unfolded true to form. My colleague and editor Robert Schlesinger gives the credit for the breakthrough Democratic victory to President Barack Obama, and I am not here to take that away. For the record, however, the savvy, well-spoken and, yes, elegant Speaker Nancy Pelosi navigated the political waves better than anyone else on the high, rough seas and brought her party and president home.

For a long stretch this bitter winter, many a Democratic senator and congressman (and I say man deliberately) walking the marble halls was willing to let up or call it a day for healthcare. Especially with a new kid in school named Scott Brown, whom many saw as a deal-breaker. Not so Pelosi.

Understandably annoyed with the Senate for being so slow in the summer and feeble of heart in the winter--not to mention shying away from the public option because of one Joe Lieberman--the speaker girded her people of the House for old-school politics. Not by new math, not by poll, not by online chats, but the old way of counting noses and votes, shaking hands, listening to each wavering member's stories, one by one. She showed the president how it's done, taking him through her side of the U.S. Capitol, pointing out members who still needed persuasion.

Obama, who has a soft spot in his heart for strong women, listened and heeded her advice as the smartest boy in class. It took a year, but the president has clearly shifted his reliance from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to Pelosi when it comes to his main man--or woman--on congressional strategy. Since he knows the Senate better from his four years as a freshman from Illinois, Obama at first looked to Reid for advice. The workaday world Reid didn't do anything special; nor did he save any days or ace any tests. Now Pelosi has earned her place as the president's first counselor on Congress after delivering a historic win for Democrats. Legislative branch power has shifted over to the more fractious, but more true-blue, House Democrats, in a real sea change.

Credit is also due to Baltimore back in its heyday in 1950, when its population peaked at 900,000. The speaker is seen as a liberal, glam grandmother from San Francisco, but she grew up in Little Italy of Baltimore, where her father was the well-known mayor. Baltimore was a big city of ethnic enclaves, a busy port and an industrial powerhouse--ever hear of Bethlehem Steel? It was--and is--a place where Irish Catholic, Jewish, African-American, Greek, and Appalachian communities thrive, second only to New York as a destination of immigrants from the Old World at the turn of the 20th century.

I still love Baltimore as a former reporter for The Sun. It's the kind of place where you can go looking through the parlor, garden, halls of Notre Dame, a Catholic girls school and find an ancient nun in the kitchen, making lunch for the schoolgirls. Sister Hilda, sure enough, remembers, "Little Nancy" when the speaker was young in the 1940s. While she was growing up as a girl in the flourishing downtown, Pelosi was cherished as the city's daughter and watched how her father walked the precincts, collecting friends and trading favors in the Democratic stronghold.

Sister Hilda told me Nancy learned her lessons in school very well. Sister Hilda was right. The speaker is now running a school of her own.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on healthcare.
  • Become a political insider: Subscribe to U.S. News Weekly, our digital magazine.
  • See our photo gallery of the last week of the healthcare debate.