Pelosi, Part Two

[ Posted Tuesday, May 19th, 2009 – 17:18 UTC ]

When I wrote yesterday's column ("What, Exactly, Was Pelosi Supposed To Do?") I expected a certain amount of debate, but I had no idea what direction it would take (which is the whole fun of the blogosphere). To be perfectly honest, I thought some Pelosi defenders would take me to task for being too hard on her.

As is frequently the case, I was wrong about that.

In the possible answers to the question posed by the article, I thought the last choice in my list was fairly damning:

Wait until there is enough political cover, then say you're against it.

Or Pelosi could have taken an even longer view, and diligently worked to gain a majority; but then when such a majority was won, refused to challenge Bush on any of his wartime policies, and continued passing every bit of legislation he asked for on the foreign policy front. Pelosi could have led Democrats (in the meantime) to fund two wars, provide amnesty for illegal wiretapping, indeed even provide amnesty for torture itself — retroactively. When Pelosi was finally given cover by a Democrat winning the White House (who himself took and is taking the political heat for declaring America's torture period over), she could have loudly supported such a president. Net result: exactly where we are today.

I went on to repeat this point later:

What is inexcusable (to me at least) was what Pelosi did in 2007 and 2008 -- after she became Speaker of the House. With her own party in charge, Pelosi absolutely refused to tackle the issue head-on. And by that time, the information was public and "national security secrets" were no longer even an issue.

. . .

It seems to me that critics of Pelosi -- whether coming from the left or right -- would do well to concentrate on the last two years of Bush's second term, when Pelosi could have been a "profile in courage" and instead gave Bush exactly what he wanted.

But these excerpts were barely even noticed. Instead, the debate this article sparked centered around two main points -- what Pelosi has been saying now about what happened (which the article didn't even address, really); and whether she should have stood up back in 2002 and fought Bush's torture policies.

The latter was even expressed in a response column on the Huffington Post by the estimable Frank Dwyer. His main point:

She could have defended her country. She could have risked her "career" or the contumely of sneering war criminals or even her personal liberty: she was, after all, our leader, and she was partly responsible for sending our young men and women off to die for the country. She could have refused to be silent, and so complicit, as war crimes were committed and the Constitution was serially subverted. Yes, she might have gone to jail for a while; she might also have become the first woman president.

He later asks me: "I kept flashing on how clearly and well you would articulate the case for the Vichy French: what else, after all, could they really have done?"

He's got a point. Although she wasn't exactly "our leader" back in 2002 (she was the Minority Leader of the House), she could indeed have stepped up and (as several commenters pointed out) read her objections into the House record, from the floor -- which seems to be a loophole under House rules which give immunity for talking about classified information (the Pentagon Papers scenario). I admit I missed this option, and it would have been a good addition to my possibilities list.

But for those who did truly try to answer the question "what should Pelosi have done?" there needs to be a followup question as well: "Would it have changed anything?" This is why I provided a "net result" to each of my options.

In the period we are talking about, George W. Bush was on a march to his second war, in Iraq. This was a few months before we invaded. Bush's job approval ratings were around 70 percent at the time -- higher than Obama's are right now. Bush forced the issue of war in Iraq by holding the vote on the resolution right before the midterm elections. Many congressional Democrats, fearful of losing their seats, went along with it (including a few who ran for president last year). Was this cowardly of them? Probably. Were they maneuvered into voting for a war they really didn't want to approve? Again, probably. But that is the atmosphere of the time period we are talking about.

Had Nancy Pelosi bravely stood up at this point and read into the public record a secret briefing from the CIA and denounced waterboarding and torture, what do you think the result would have been? Would it have stopped the practice in its tracks? Would it have shamed Bush into changing course? Would any of the last seven years have been different, and how?

I don't know the answer to these questions, I fully admit. There are three broad possibilities for how you see it playing out. Either it would have changed things in a big way, changed things slightly, or not had any change at all. You can argue it would have shortened the Iraq War, but it's pretty hard to argue that it would have prevented Bush from launching the war. Remember, this was also the same time the Bush administration's favorite phrase was "we don't want mushroom clouds over American cities," as they were telling the country that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (Condi Rice used the "mushroom cloud" more than once, in an effort to convince Americans Hussein was about to drop a nuke on them). And, from British accounts, Bush had already made his mind up to go in to Iraq.

So the biggest change you could argue as a possibility is that the abuse at Abu Graib never happened. This would indeed be a big change, and would put us in a very different place than we are today. Pelosi starting the debate when she could have (when first briefed, no matter when that actually was) may have precluded Abu Graib. Or, it could have had pretty much the same impact as when the media broke the story later on -- Bush would have redefined the word "torture," sneered at the Geneva Conventions, and done exactly what he did anyway.

As for what would have happened politically, I think it's a stretch to say that Pelosi would have wound up as our first female president, but the argument is valid. She could have come out of it smelling like a rose, and been seen as a profile in courage because of it. She could indeed have ridden this wave of support to the presidency. Or she could have been target number one for Republicans to paint Democrats as this or that (as they are wont to do).

But what happened to Pelosi in our non-hypothetical universe is pretty impressive as well. She is the first female Speaker of the House. She has charted a course for Democrats which has actually enraged the anti-war voices in her party (to say nothing of the pro-impeachment voices). Even while doing this, she has still become one of the GOP's favorite targets.

And she may not have been able to achieve this if she had spoken out. If speaking out forcefully and courageously was the sole requisite for becoming Speaker, then Dennis Kucinich would now hold the job.

So Pelosi made a political calculation and decided to stay quiet back in 2002, rather than run the risk of political oblivion. I do not defend her for doing so, but I have a lot more to say about what she has done (and, importantly, what she has not done) since she became Speaker, and since the House has returned to Democratic control. Because in the House, the minority can make a lot of noise about whatever it feels like (see: Republicans today), but they have absolutely no power to actually get anything accomplished. For example: House Republicans hated President Obama's stimulus package. They fulminated about it for weeks. It passed. It is now law. It ultimately made no difference what the minority House members said or did.

So while what I wrote yesterday was really (facetiously, I admit) written for the audience of Republicans criticizing Nancy Pelosi, asking them what the heck Pelosi should have done, in their opinion; I failed to address her critics on the left. The left has a much more valid point, because they are not expressing some faux outrage over Pelosi (seriously, can you see any of Pelosi's rightwing critics saying she should have leaked classified information?) in the here-and-now, the left is annoyed over Pelosi's original actions back in 2002. Which is a much more core criticism of Pelosi's actions.

Pelosi's critics on the left have a good point -- she should have done everything in her power to stop something she should have considered illegal. In fact, I will take this point one further, and argue that (seen through this lens) it was actually her duty to do so, under the oath she took to the Constitution. Seen in this light, Pelosi's inaction was indefensible. What it came down to was a political choice. In the dark days of 2002, a lot of Democrats made political choices they would later come to regret (or at least, as Hillary Clinton did on the campaign trail, "later have to explain"). If you believe the CIA's version of the briefings, Pelosi knew what was going on, and should now own up to her previous political decision and either apologize or at least try to explain.

Even if you believe Pelosi's story (that she was not briefed about waterboarding prisoners), at some point she read about it in the New York Times like the rest of us. And for two years as Speaker of the House, she did not put an end to it. As I stated yesterday, I hold Pelosi a whole lot more accountable for the years 2007-2009 than I do for 2002, when she had little power.

But to those arguing Pelosi should have done something differently back then, I ask you honestly: what do you think the net result would have been? Congress had just approved war with Iraq. Bush had a 70 percent approval rating. The message from the Bush White House was that we should all be paralyzed with fear because Saddam Hussein was about to nuke American cities. The first anniversary of 9/11 had just passed. Republicans ruled the House, the Senate, and the White House.

How much impact would Nancy Pelosi have had? And if she had spoken out, would she not have been replaced in her Democratic leadership position by someone more hawkish on foreign policy? And would her replacement now be Speaker of the House? How would this change things politically now?

I'm not saying that's the likely outcome, but if we're going to discuss possible repercussions of Pelosi's hypothetical actions in 2002, then we have to at least entertain the possibility that while she could have effected some change by doing so, perhaps not all the changes necessarily would have been the changes we wished for.


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “Pelosi, Part Two”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    Forgive the redundancy..

    "In the dictionary, under redundant, it says, 'see redundant'. "
    -Robin Williams

    In 2002 or 2003 or whenever she was briefed, Pelosi did the right thing. She put the needs and security her country above her own personal feelings and political machinations. She is to be applauded for such selfless and patriotic actions.

    Flash forward to today. While her cowardly and politically motivated acts today do not completely erase her patriotic acts of years previous, they do make it harder for objective ones (like your's truly :D) to give credit where credit is due..


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Here are some other takes on the issue..

    Cut n Paste the links..

    [CW Editor note: you can now just click on them, Michale is being lazy here...]

    Mike Baker's is especially hilarious, but I am biased in his favor, as Baker is a kindred spirit. :D


  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Trollin, trollin, trollin,
    Keep those comments rollin,
    Though monitors remove him outside...
    They write extended missives,
    Of evidence dismissive,
    They leave us links to blogs that we'll deride...

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Is that Robin Williams quote anything like Monty Python's "Department of Redundancy Department"? Heh heh.

    Oh, I fixed your links for you, too. You getting lazy, or what?

    Osborne Ink -

    OK, just for your effort, I am going to post the whole poem from today's interview column. I thought it was too long for the article, but you've inspired me to type it out, as it is hilarious if you know the original poem. See comments to Wednesday's column....


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:


    I have used this response countless times over at HuffPo. It saddens me that I use it here..

    Thank you for your concession that you have no logical or rational counter to my argument and must therefore resort to childish and immature personal attacks.

    Your concession of my superiority is appreciated, albeit irrelevant.


    Is that Robin Williams quote anything like Monty Python's "Department of Redundancy Department"? Heh heh.

    Probably.. :D The line came from his LIVE AT THE MET and was a dig on President Reagan..

    "Here is a man who said, 'What would this country be without this great land of ours.'... Excuse me? Mr President? In the dictionary under redundant, it says, 'see redundant'" :D

    LIVE AT THE MET is one of Robin Williams' funniest stand ups.

    Oh, I fixed your links for you, too. You getting lazy, or what?

    Naw, just didn't want to have to make extra work for you by having to approve the post.. :D


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Well, iddn't DIS a surprise??

    Seems like Democrats are ONLY interested in a "truth" commission that investigates alleged lies by Bush et al..

    Dems have no problem using their political power to shut down any truth seeking if Dems are at fault..

    Whatta shocker, eh??


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    "We uphold our fundamental principles and values not just because we choose to, but because we swear to -- not because they feel good, but because they help keep us safe,"
    -President Obama

    Yea... :^/

    And prayer will cure cancer...


Comments for this article are closed.