By Molly Ball
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been right about a lot.
- She was right in the early 1990s, when, as a fierce critic of China’s human rights record,
- she rejected the bipartisan faith that economic liberalization in China would inevitably lead to greater democratization.
- She was right again in 2003 when, as the leader of the House Democrats, she was one of the few party leaders to oppose the war in Iraq.
- She was right during the 2008 primary, when she rejected the entreaties of powerful allies of Hillary Clinton — Harvey Weinstein among them — to get behind a plan to use superdelegates to help Clinton take the Democratic nomination from Barack Obama.
- Pelosi was right throughout Obama’s administration, when she struggled to make the president see that his fetish for bipartisanship was leading him to make pointless concessions to Republicans, who would never negotiate in good faith.
In “Pelosi,” Molly Ball’s admiring and illuminating new biography of the most powerful woman in American politics, there’s a scene where Pelosi expresses her frustration to Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, over Obama’s doomed courtship of Republican support for health care reform. “Does the president not understand the way this game works?” she asks. “He wants to get it done and be beloved, and you can’t have both — which does he want?”
The House speaker would rather get it done. There’s a pattern in Ball’s book. Again and again, Pelosi is dismissed,
- first as a dilettante housewife,
- then as a far-left San Francisco kook,
- finally as an establishment dinosaur — and
- throughout, as a woman.
She perseveres, driven by a steely faith in her own abilities. And more often than not, she is vindicated.
[ Read an excerpt from “Pelosi.” ]
The arc of Ball’s book is one of triumph. Pelosi was born to a prominent Democratic family in Baltimore, but the San Francisco network of influence that led her to Congress was one she built herself. When she entered the House of Representatives in 1987, women were a rarity in the chamber and completely absent from leadership. Sexual harassment and belittlement were constant. Twenty years later, she became the first-ever female House speaker. And in 2019, after regaining the top spot in the chamber, she came to preside over the most diverse Democratic caucus in history, one she did as much as anyone to elect.
For the first time in her public life, Pelosi became an icon, lauded for her unparalleled ability to get under Donald Trump’s skin. In one of her first meetings with the president when she was speaker, she helped goad him into taking public responsibility for an imminent government shutdown. Video of her strolling out of the White House in a chic Max Mara coat, putting on her tortoise shell sunglasses with a sly smile, appeared in countless memes. “It was as if America, after years of fixation on her weaknesses, had suddenly woken up to her strengths,” Ball writes.
For a liberal reading Ball’s book — and I suspect it will largely be liberals who will want to read a shining account of Pelosi’s career — a major question is whether the speaker’s strengths are equal to the severity of the dangers bearing down on our country. Even before coronavirus, many on the left worried that Pelosi wasn’t doing enough to constrain Trump, though she eventually came around to impeaching him. Once the pandemic hit, there was growing alarm among progressives that Democrats, in negotiating rescue packages, didn’t insist on the funding necessary to make the 2020 election secure, which could unfold in the shadow of a pandemic that makes in-person voting life-threatening. Congressional Democrats have leverage, Michael Grunwald wrote in Politico, but “they don’t seem inclined to use that leverage to take on Trump.”
In the past, Pelosi has always seemed to have a plan, even if those sniping from outside couldn’t see it. When it comes to Trump, does she still?
Reading “Pelosi,” it’s hard to know exactly how Pelosi sees the threat that Trump poses. Despite meticulous reporting and multiple interviews with the House speaker, Ball, Time magazine’s national political correspondent, doesn’t penetrate her steely exterior, as she herself acknowledges. Pelosi, Ball writes, “is a private person, and her inner life is fundamentally off limits.” To understand her, we can only look to her record.
Parts of that record should comfort those who fear that Pelosi is going soft. One of the book’s most telling anecdotes involves the late congressman Jack Murtha, a grizzled, conservative Democrat from Pennsylvania. An ex-Marine, Murtha initially supported the Iraq war, but in November 2005 he called a news conference to decry it and demand a six-month timetable for withdrawal. “The war in Iraq is not going as advertised,” he said. “Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk.” It was a turning point in the public’s understanding of the war; as Ball writes, “One analyst later dubbed it the ‘Murthquake,’ and antiwar activists credited Murtha with a seismic shift in the public debate.”
Yet as Murtha became a major face of opposition to the Iraq war, Pelosi remained silent, enraging antiwar activists who believed she’d left Murtha out on a limb. Amy Poehler, playing Pelosi on “Saturday Night Live,” mocked her timidity. “What are the Democrats proposing to counteract all this corruption?” asked Darrell Hammond, playing MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “That’s easy, Chris. We’re going to do nothing,” Poehler said.
“Pelosi let them criticize her even though she knew the truth: She and Murtha had orchestrated the whole thing, and agreed that it had to look like a one-man crusade,” Ball writes. Both believed his withdrawal proposal would carry greater weight if he didn’t seem to be working with the caucus’s left flank.
Here we see one of the more striking things about Pelosi: She’s willing to advance her policy goals at the expense of her own image. Part of the reason Pelosi has been underestimated is simple sexism, but part is that she genuinely seems to care less about how she’s perceived than about what she can accomplish.
Ball describes the Murtha episode as “an illustration of Pelosi’s theory of public opinion.” Pelosi likes to repeat a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” It was a line she invoked to explain her reluctance to impeach Trump, infuriating people — myself included — who believed she was following rather than leading. But Ball has made me think we were misunderstanding Pelosi; the speaker was emphasizing the importance of shaping public opinion before acting, not using public opinion as a reason not to act.
So as I read Ball’s book, I kept thinking that maybe Pelosi’s impeachment hesitation had been a put-on, a repeat of the Murtha play. But it appears it wasn’t — she really did hold out until her caucus gave her no choice. Likewise, her willingness to collaborate with Trump, even if it gives him legislative accomplishments to tout, is genuine. Pelosi, Ball writes, thought she could, “as she had with George W. Bush, work with him on goals they shared even as they fiercely opposed each other where they didn’t agree.” She never aspired to lead an all-out campaign against Trump’s authoritarianism.
Pelosi has always been a progressive; until the last few years, the right used her as the ultimate symbol of left-wing extremism. But her relentlessly pragmatic approach to politics is the polar opposite of, say, the Bernie Sanders approach. Pelosi doesn’t begin by asking what kind of world we want. She asks where the votes are. The speaker is, as she herself has said, a master legislator. “If this book has a thesis, it is that you needn’t agree with Nancy Pelosi’s politics to respect her accomplishments and appreciate her historic career,” Ball says. But you can do that and still wonder if, at this moment, her skill at making the system work is enough to check a man happy to destroy it.
A prominent economist faced pressure from others in his field to step down from an editing post because of comments he made criticizing the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements, reflecting some of the turmoil roiling economics and other professions following the recent police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
The sparring this week between critics and defenders of University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig, the lead editor of the Journal of Political Economy, comes during national protests over police brutality and discussions about racial inequality and policing practices.
The debate over Mr. Uhlig follows several years in which the economics profession has sought to grapple with tensions in its ranks over its lack of racial and gender diversity.
In a Twitter post late Monday, Mr. Uhlig said that Black Lives Matter—a long-running campaign focused on issues of police brutality—had “just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice,” a reference to calls by activists to shift government spending away from police departments. Those calls have increased since Mr. Floyd’s killing.
“Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all,” Mr. Uhlig wrote. “We need more police, we need to pay them more, we need to train them better,” he added.
Backlash grew quickly on Twitter, including demands from prominent and rank-and-file economists for Mr. Uhlig’s resignation from the publication, which describes itself as “one of the oldest and most prestigious journals in economics.”
“He belittled the movement,” said Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank, who supports Mr. Uhlig’s resignation.
Mr. Uhlig and the Journal of Political Economy didn’t immediately return requests for comments. Mr. Uhlig apologized Tuesday on Twitter and said his views weren’t pronouncements by the journal or the University of Chicago.
“My tweets in recent days and an old blog post have apparently irritated a lot of people. That was far from my intention: let me apologize for that,” Mr. Uhlig wrote.
Too bad, but #blacklivesmatter per its core organization @Blklivesmatter just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice : “We call for a national defunding of police.” Suuuure. They knew this is non-starter, and tried a sensible Orwell 1984 of saying,279 people are talking about this
Critics also had flagged past posts on his blog, including one in 2017 that criticized National Football League players for on-field, kneeling protests over police brutality.
Mr. Ajilore said Mr. Uhlig’s comments reflected a failure to recognize that the Black Lives Matter movement has had an impact on policing policy. Mr. Ajilore said the comments were further troubling because of how closely academic economists’ career trajectories are tied to their ability to have editors approve research for publication in top-tier journals, such as the Journal of Political Economy.
“How can you be an objective arbiter of work when you’re not able to recognize actual, tangible, serious, significant movements?” Mr. Ajilore asked.
Maximilian Auffhammer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted on Tuesday a link to a letter that called for Mr. Uhlig to step down from his post at the journal, with encouragement for others to sign it.
“Prof. Uhlig is welcome to say whatever he wants. But his comments hurt and marginalize people of color and their allies in the economics profession,” Mr. Auffhammer, who planned to deliver the letter Thursday, said in an email Wednesday.
“I would also argue that they call into question his impartiality in assessing academic work on this and related topics. More broadly they damage the standing of the economics discipline in society,” he said.
Mr. Uhlig’s defenders also circulated their arguments online, saying in a letter he should remain in the journal post.
“We, the undersigned, do not believe political litmus tests should be applied when deciding who receives prominent academic positions. This is bad for economics,” the counterpetition said.
Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, said he had signed the letter in support of Mr. Uhlig.
“The line is moving here in terms of how enthusiastically you must support a party line,” Mr. Hanson said. “You can’t in any way seem at all critical or you’re threatening our unity or something. That’s a Stalin level of conformity,” he added.
The American Economic Association has said it is working to improve the profession’s culture since a survey released in 2018 found women and minorities felt they were discriminated against in hiring and the publication process at top economics journals.
“We acknowledge the pain of our colleagues and students—and especially our Black colleagues and students—who must once again bear witness to evidence that violent racism has not yet been eradicated from our society,” the AEA’s executive committee said in a June 5 statement on Mr. Floyd’s death.
“We commit ourselves personally and professionally to actions that the economics profession can and should take to contribute to broader social efforts to root out racism,” the statement added.
Several black economists, and others, have called for the profession’s research methods to better address racial disparities.
William Spriggs, chief economist to the AFL-CIO, wrote in a recent open letter to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that Mr. Floyd’s killing offers the economics profession a chance to reflect on shortcomings in its approach to race-related issues and research.
“The overwhelming majority of explorations of racial disparities in economic outcomes remains deeply tied to that view of race as an exogenous variable,” Mr. Spriggs wrote. That model leads to economic analysis that “assumes that there is something ‘deficient’ about black people.”
Mr. Spriggs, in an interview, said economists should instead be more willing to identify the construct of race itself as the cause of certain unequal outcomes for African-Americans.
“Our theory is that the market rewards everything equally,” Mr. Spriggs said. Sometimes, “somebody is putting their hand on the scale and race is the marker that they put their hand on the scale.”
As you learn more about narcissism, you may uncover a distinct lack of conscience in some. You wonder, “Am I dealing with a sociopath, or worse? Psychotherapist Dr. Les Carter explains commonalities and distinctions regarding narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths.