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.
The cost of building sea barriers that would protect New York City and parts of New Jersey from storm surges is likely to run as high as $23 billion, according to the Dutch scientist commissioned by New York City to study how it might respond to the extreme weather events and rising sea levels brought about by climate change.
The cost estimate has caused sticker shock among some elected officials, most notably New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has bristled at the proposal, even after Superstorm Sandy flooded vast swaths of Coney Island, Lower Manhattan and Queens and left 43 people dead.
But a groundswell of public backing for the concept, combined with an estimated $50 billion in storm-related damages, means support is forming for close scrutiny of the likely costs and benefits of constructing sea barriers in New York Harbor.
Jeroen Aerts, a professor of water and climate risk at VU University Amsterdam, who is the scientist leading the study, said interest in the project before Hurricane Sandy was “low, very low. Really, extremely low.”
“This is not to blame the U.S. or the city whatsoever,” he added. “This has to do with looking into the future and to incorporate forward looking into your daily practices. This is difficult, especially for policymakers.”
Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call for New Orleans, said Aerts, “and apparently it takes Hurricane Sandy to make people aware that New York City is also vulnerable.”
In 2011, when Hurricane Irene prompted officials to evacuate 400,000 New York residents, Aerts was asked by the New York City Department of City Planning to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of constructing storm surge barriers like those in his home country, the Netherlands.
The department requested that he also evaluate the ways in which current land use and building codes might be amended in order to improve the city’s adaptive capacity and build its resilience to climate change.
Cheap solution: $10B
The cheapest scenario, he said, includes two barriers: a large structure between Sandy Hook and the Rockaways and smaller one at the northern part of the East River. He estimated that these would cost roughly $10 billion.
The other strategy, he said, involves the construction of three or four barriers: one across Arthur Kill, the narrow strait between Staten Island and New Jersey; one across the Verrazano Narrows; one in the East River; and possibly another running across Jamaica Bay.
That scenario, he said, would cost “a maximum of $17 billion.” Aerts explained that these estimates do not include the costs of building up coastal protection outside of the barrier.
Once the storm gates are closed, everything inside the barrier is protected from storm surges. Outside those barriers, though, levees and sand dunes would need to be constructed in order to keep back not only the initial storm surge but also the water that would otherwise flow into the areas behind the sea barriers.
Aerts estimated that 25 miles of coastal protection would need to be constructed, adding as much as $15 billion to the cost of building the barriers.
Further study, he said, needs to be done of “the side effects” of building a barrier, such as the ecological impacts on inland estuaries and coastal marshes. The barriers are technologically feasible, he said, but the primary obstacle will be securing the financing and navigating the complex and overlapping regulatory structure that involves multiple local, state and federal agencies.
A $20 billion proposal
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on Tuesday announced a $20 billion proposal for improving New York City’s climate change preparedness. In addition to investing in subway, sewage and electrical grid protection, the plan calls for fast-tracking Aerts’ study.
As part of the speaker’s proposal, New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D) will lead an effort in the U.S. Congress to tap the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a study into the feasibility of constructing sea surge barriers around New York City.
Quinn is a front-runner in the 2013 mayor’s race, and her proposal offers a hint that disaster response and climate change may be central topics in the contest to succeed Bloomberg.
In announcing the proposal, Quinn pointed out that sea surge barriers have been built along the Dutch coast and in London’s portion of the River Thames. She also described how engineers in Stamford, Conn., “with the click of a mouse, brought a storm surge gate rising up from the water as Sandy approached.”
The Connecticut barrier was built following a strong hurricane that hit in 1938. “It’s now crystal clear that we need to build protective structures,” she said.
“This is really a giant step forward,” said Robert Trentlyon, a resident of Lower Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood and for many years a leader in a citizen effort to build support for the construction of a sea barrier.
Trentlyon has secured the backing of many Manhattan community boards, the advisory groups appointed by each of New York City’s borough presidents, and championed the concept at City Council meetings.
Sandy flooded most of Lower Manhattan, including several subway and vehicle tunnels, and knocked out power south of 39th Street on the eastern side of the island and south of 31st Street on the western side. “We have a lot of support for this,” he said.
What happens when the memory fades?
Aerts will travel to New York City in December to present his preliminary findings to city officials and at a gathering of scientists. He said the report will be finished by the summer of 2013.
“In a few months’ time, the discussion will be different,” warned Aerts. “Now the memory is fresh. In a few months’ time, there will be another crisis. The mess has been cleaned up. The people in Breezy Point may have a new home. And suddenly the discussion becomes different.”
The environmental lobby and people concerned that storm surge barriers will compromise their view will be the primary opponents, he said.
“I cannot predict exactly what will happen,” said Aerts, “but I do think that costs and benefits are really a technical approach. In the end, it’s really the sentiments and the emotions of people that play a big role, and politicians are very sensitive to those emotions in society.”
According to Gallup, in the first week of January 2004 more than half of surveyed Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country. Within a few weeks, however, that number had fallen below 50 percent. It has never recovered. Since the 2008 financial crisis, it has not cracked 40 percent.
.. Brill describes a slow-motion process of perverse meritocracy in which, as one law professor tells him, “the elites have become so skilled and so hardworking that they are able to protect each other better than ever before.” Or, as Brill labels it, “Moat Nation.”
.. Brill focuses on the legal shifts and stalemates that ushered in the country’s current predicament
.. The rise of executive compensation practices linked to stock prices encouraged executives to prioritize short-term profits over long-term investments. A series of Supreme Court cases, ending with Citizens United, enabled corporate speech to play a powerful role in national politics. The growth of super PACs and lobbyists in Washington guarantees that any piece of appropriate regulation will be watered down — first in Congress and then in the implementation stage.
.. The federal government’s approach to fraudulent financial firms has shifted from the criminal prosecution of executives to the levying of fines.
.. the number of times the phrase “unintended consequences” appears in the book. Many of the legal and regulatory changes that Brill excoriates have counterintuitive beginnings. Who helped spearhead the growth of the commercial speech movement? The consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who sued the Commonwealth of Virginia to allow pharmacies to advertise drug prices. “Talk about boomerangs,”
.. the very first political action committee was created in 1943 by a labor union.
.. efforts to bring more minority members to Congress as “another reform effort that boomeranged,” because minority Democrats allied with Republicans to rewrite congressional districts and eviscerate districts held by white Democrats.
.. Brill blames the tortoise-like pace of government rule-writing on due process run amok.
.. Brill argues that interest groups have weaponized due process to guarantee gridlock.
.. In almost all of “Tailspin,” a well-intentioned liberal reform goes badly off the rails.
.. Brill never quite makes the connection between laws and norms.
.. many of the trends that Brill identifies, like political polarization, have their origins in the erosion of norms, not laws, and the real question is whether Americans can trust one another enough not to abuse less legalistic systems.
.. On this point, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die” is probably more instructive.
I can smell Donald Trump’s fear from here. His panic. His anxiety.
.. The only people who know what has been discovered in the Russian election meddling probe are Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, and they aren’t talking.
But President Trump no doubt knows far more about it than the rest of us, and what he knows — or what he fears — appears to be a consuming preoccupation. He tweets about the investigation constantly.
.. “They have come to believe that, if the Democrats win control of the House in November, the chamber will vote on whether to begin the impeachment process no matter the outcome of Mr. Mueller’s investigation. So they want to sway Americans — and by extension, lawmakers.”
.. The Times quoted Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s lawyers, as saying, “Nobody is going to consider impeachment if public opinion has concluded this is an unfair investigation, and that’s why public opinion is so important.”
.. Politico reported on this strategy in May, writing: “President Donald Trump and his lawyers have made a strategic calculation that their fight against Special Counsel Robert Mueller is more political than it is legal. They’re banking that the lead Russia investigator will follow longstanding Justice Department practice that a sitting president can’t be indicted, and that the only real threat to Trump’s survival is impeachment.”
.. “So long as that theory holds, Trump’s plan is to forcefully challenge Mueller in the arena he knows best — not the courtroom but the media, with a public campaign aimed at the special counsel’s credibility, especially among Republican voters and G.O.P. members of Congress.”
.. In May, CNN’s Dana Bash interviewed Giuliani, and she posited that the “Spygate” saga was “an intentional strategy to undermine the investigation, knowing that they, the investigators, the special counsel, it’s their policy not to talk. But you are very free to and are very aggressive about doing so.”
Giuliani responded in part:
“Of course, we have to do it in defending the president. We are defending — to a large extent, remember, Dana, we are defending here, it is for public opinion, because eventually the decision here is going to be impeach, not impeach. Members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, are going to be informed a lot by their constituents. So, our jury is the American — as it should be — is the American people.”
.. One has to ask: Why exactly is impeachment front of mind for these people? If they were as innocent as they publicly proclaim, they would know that impeachment would be out of the question as a matter of fact and law. But that is apparently not the case.
.. I believe that Trump is conducting himself as only a guilty man would, one who has a very real and well-founded fear that he is in imminent jeopardy.
.. In May, Trump added Emmet T. Flood, a lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during his impeachment, to his legal team.
.. Impeachment is always on Trump’s mind, and so he relentlessly pursues his strategy of creating a climate of incredulity to ward it off.
.. Republicans, who now give Mueller a 17 percent approval rating, down from 29 percent in March.
.. Trump contends that there’s no there there. If not, why is he acting like there is?
Although the former mayor says that he is acting as Donald Trump’s outside legal counsel, it’s increasingly clear that his main role is that of attack dog. His principal assignment: to bloody Mueller, and, if possible, disable him.
.. During his sitdown with Ingraham, Giuliani extended this argument, arguing that for “the same reason they can’t indict him, they can’t issue a subpoena to him.”
These statements raise an obvious question: If Mueller really has nothing on Trump, and if, in any case, he is barred from bringing an indictment or issuing a Presidential subpoena, why are the President and his attorneys so concerned about the investigation?
.. As the Republican congressman Trey Gowdy remarked to Trump’s former lead attorney, John Dowd, after he called on Mueller to wrap it up, “If you have an innocent client … act like it.”
the special counsel’s team has proceeded methodically for the past twelve months on at least five distinct but connected fronts:
- Russian trolling and voter-targeting on social-media platforms;
- the hacking and release of Democratic e-mails;
- direct contacts between members of the Trump campaign and individuals connected to the Russian government;
- Trump’s business dealings with people and entities connected to Russia; and
- possible obstruction of justice.
.. Strictly speaking, that is a separate probe. But nobody on Trump’s team doubts that if and when Cohen decides to coöperate with the prosecutors, Mueller’s investigators will be all ears.
.. as early as last fall, Mueller’s team demanded information from some of the companies that hired the Trump fixer as a consultant after the election. This suggests that the investigation is running many months ahead of the media, and also, perhaps, ahead of the White House’s knowledge of its activities.
.. we know, courtesy of a leak to the Times by Trump’s lawyers, is that Mueller wants to pose at least forty-nine questions to the President himself. Despite Trump’s constant refrain that there was no collusion with Russia, many of these questions also relate directly to what happened before the 2016 election.
.. “During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the campaign?” and
“What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?”
.. if Mueller found evidence of a serious crime involving the President, and he believed it should be prosecuted in an ordinary court of law, he could go to Rosenstein, who in this case would be the acting Attorney General—and the ultimate decision would fall on Rosenstein’s shoulders.
.. Most people in Washington don’t expect Mueller to bring criminal charges against Trump. If he doesn’t, and Trump doesn’t fire him before he completes his investigation, the key issue—whether or not to impeach Trump—may well be left to Congress. And since Congress operates in the court of public opinion, this would ultimately be a political decision.
That, of course, is another reason that Trump brought in Giuliani—to stick up for him and his family in public, even if that involves defending the indefensible
.. we can rest assured that they won’t be put off by Giuliani’s bluster.