Nancy Pelosi has proven to be a far more politically savvy Speaker of the House than most of her critics, and some of her fans, expected. This is not to say that she has done enough to end the war in Iraq or hold the Bush administration to account, nor that she has avoided predictable pitfalls that are discovered by new congressional leaders. But she has kept her caucus together and drawn significant Republican support as the House has addressed minimum wage, stem cell research and ethics issues that were neglected by her Republican predecessor.
Even conservative commentator Bob Novak, via the anything but Pelosi-friendly Evans-Novak political wire, commented that, "The 'hundred hours' program of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. has been a success beyond all anticipation. The passage of poll-approved measures came with a unanimous Democratic vote and heavy — in some cases majority — Republican support. This performance shows the error and futility of Republican expectations that Pelosi as speaker would fall on her face…"
But Pelosi's biggest achievements cannot solely be measured by the legislation that has passed the House. It is also important to pay attention to her outreach to constituencies that Democrats tended to ignore during the Clinton and early Bush years — to the party's dramatic detriment.
On Friday, Pelosi will deliver the keynote address at the National Farmers Union's 105th annual convention. Her focus will be on opportunities for development in rural communities, with special attention to increasing the use of renewable fuels. The speaker recognizes that there is common ground on which the party's environmentally-conscious base can stand with farmers, and she is paying a lot of attention to that turf.
But the most important thing about Pelosi's appearance at the NFU convention in Orlando will not be what she says. Rather, it will be that the most prominent Democrat in Washington is going out of her way to spend time with farmers and ranchers.
For years, Democrats prattled on and on about how to appeal to this suburb or that suburb, failing to recognize that they were losing winnable House seats in the vast rural stretches beyond metropolitan America. Campaign after campaign went by, with Republicans printing up their "Farmers and Ranchers for Gingrich," "Farmers and Ranchers for Dole," "Farmers and Ranchers for Bush" signs and, by virtue of minimal attention to rural voters, gaining victories that never should have gone to the party of corporate agribusiness. The Democratic Party's failure to address basic concerns of rural America — on issues ranging from trade policy to renewable fuels to the unique concerns of remote regions regarding health care and education — cost the party dearly.
Along with the new Democratic chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Minnesota's Colin Peterson — who will also address the NFU convention — and Iowa's Tom Harkin, Pelosi has worked hard to get farm and rural issues back on the party's agenda. Even before she was speaker, Pelosi urged the formation in 2OO3 of the Rural Working Group, an advisory panel of House members that focuses on policy matters that are of particular concern to farmers and residents of small towns and cities.
Others, particularly Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer and that state's new Democratic senator, Jon Tester, have worked hard and well to get Democrats to recognize that there are unmet economic and social needs in rural America — not to mention significant openings for smart electoral appeals by a Democratic Party that recognizes and addresses those needs. But Pelosi, a native of Baltimore who now represents San Francisco, has been impressively attentive to the concerns of corners of America that have in recent years been exploited by too many Republicans and neglected by too many Democrats.
NFU President Tom Buis says "[Pelosi] is leading the charge to develop strong rural policy in Congress."
That is high praise, indeed, for a big-city politician like Pelosi. But she has earned it by going out of her way to pay attention to rural America, by focusing on proper policies and, perhaps just as importantly, by showing up for events like the convention of the National Farmers Union.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation