Women recognize that kind of smile: pasted, forced, painful. When it appears — say, to hide heartbreak or sadness — there's a natural sympathy, even admiration, for the spirit of the woman wearing it. But when the soon-to-be Madame Speaker emerged from a closed-door Democratic caucus recently wearing that anguished grin, there was none of that friendly sense of embrace. None whatsoever.
Instead, there was mostly this question: What was the woman thinking? That we would simply accept the toothy smile as evidence of her newfound comity with Steny Hoyer, the new majority leader — whom she had just attempted to knock off? That we would think it was a good idea to make her maiden leadership power play — in supporting Jack Murtha over Hoyer, her foe, for the job — an act of revenge instead of reconciliation? That the woman about to become the first female Speaker of the House was smart to look like a girl eager to "get back" at the guy she didn't like? That stepping on your own big story by trying to big-foot your membership is inspirational bridge-building? Or even good politics?
The facts: Nancy Pelosi is making history. As a woman, she will be held to a different standard, so she needs to set her standards high. It's not fair, but that's the way it is — and we all know it. And it's why choosing Murtha (over a well-regarded man already in place as her No. 2) was ultimately so self-defeating — and more revealing than she probably intended. A Pelosi ally told me that she was just playing by the tough rules of the old male pols in trying to deep-six her antagonist, Hoyer. If so, she forgot something: You might be forgiven if you employ a low tactic in the service of higher purpose. But threatening committee assignments so freshmen vote for Jack Murtha just doesn't qualify.
Pelosi's main job is to tee up the Democrats for 2008. It's a tough task, largely because she's a leader of a party perpetually at war with itself. The unity the Democrats found in the last election was rooted in one simple truth: They weren't the Republicans running the Congress or the White House. There was no national Democratic conversion, just a sense that the other guys ought to get a shot at governing. So while the Democrats won, they still remain a motley crew: rich and poor, culturally conservative and liberal, big spenders and budget-balancers.
They're also divided on the best way to end the war. Pelosi has taken sides: She supports the Murtha withdraw-now scenario. And she's about to demote her more moderate fellow Californian, Jane Harman — denying her the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee, even kicking her off the panel. Why demote Harman? If it's a policy dispute over the war, why not welcome Harman's voice — generally regarded as credible, even if it veers from the liberal line? If it's a personal dispute, get over it. Any member of the California delegation will tell you that the two women don't get along — and that both have probably been right over the years. But if you're speaker, why demean your exalted position by engaging in a publicly ugly, even tacky, fight? Particularly when the possible alternative to Harman is Alcee Hastings of Florida, once impeached by the Senate for ethical lapses. "If Pelosi starts acting like the second coming of George McGovern," says one top Democratic strategist, "we will lose much of what we have gained."
There are some hopeful signs: Despite the suggestion by Rep. Charles Rangel that Congress ought to reinstitute the draft, Pelosi has made it clear that the idea is a nonstarter. It might actually be an interesting debate that would engage the nation, but it's never going to happen — so Pelosi is wise to avoid it. Then there's the decision to roll out a bunch of ethics reform measures at the start of the next Congress. It's the issue that tipped the balance towards the Democrats — and they're going to take their time debating it. Each proposal — whether it's a gift ban, lobbying reform, or eliminating pork-barrel-spending "earmarks" — will be in a separate bill, providing plenty of votes and attention for an issue that mattered to the public.
That's smart. And it's an agenda House Democrats want. So far, in fact, it's the flock that has been serving the leader well: pushing for reforms and refusing to rubber-stamp Murtha because he's Pelosi's friend. If they begin to actually get something done, the smiles may finally be for real.
By Gloria Borger