Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 24, 2010


The two most powerful women in the Democratic Party represent two divergent views on what strategy will optimize the party’s chances to stay in the White House after 2012. Nancy Pelosi is pushing to move the party to the left while Hillary Clinton embodies a more pragmatic approach to better represent moderate voters.


In a time of high partisanship, only those loyal to the most sacred beliefs of the Democratic Party can lead the regrouping after the midterm election defeat. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi can claim pure democratic DNA. Their personal history and political career is defined by partisan principles. They both have very high negatives among Republicans. Just like Republican presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, Clinton and Pelosi generate as much resistance among political opponents as support among sympathizers.


Yet, Clinton and Pelosi have more differences than similarities. Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton, born on October 26, 1947, represents the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. Nancy Pelosi, born on March 26, 1940, positions herself on the left. Hillary entered politics in Arkansas in 1974, together with her husband Bill Clinton, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress a year after they completed their law degree.  Nancy Pelosi was born when her father Thomas D’Alessandro served in Congress. She grew up in Washington and Baltimore, where her father later served as mayor.


Pelosi made a political career in San Francisco, one of the most liberal cities in the United States. She has served in Congress since 1987. During the Clinton years (1993-2001), Pelosi worked her way up the leadership of her party. Under the Bush administration, Pelosi emerged as a vocal opponent of tax breaks and restrictions on civil liberties. She became the House minority whip in 2002 and the House minority leader in 2003. When democrats gained control of the House in 2006, she became the first woman to be the Speaker of the House, second in the line of presidential succession after the vice-president.


Clinton built a career in her husband’s shadow in Arkansas, a conservative state.  After having supported her husband’s career all the way to the White House, Clinton started her own political career when she was elected senator from New York in 2000. She struggled to hold moderate positions during the Bush administration, infuriating liberals — including Pelosi — for her support to the war in Iraq. In 2004, she decided against running for the democratic presidential nomination in part because of George W. Bush’s popularity, but also because she lacked support within the dominant leftwing party base. In 2008, she secured the support of many Democratic governors and elected leaders but failed to win the nomination when the inexperienced senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, won over the support of the left-leaning base.  After winning the election, Obama asked Clinton to be his secretary of state. Since taking office, Clinton has showed a remarkable discipline and built strong bipartisan support for the administration foreign policy agenda.


After the 2010 midterm elections, Pelosi came under fire from centrist voices within her party. Democrats lost 63 seats and now will hold 190 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives.  Disregarding calls to step down, Pelosi successfully ran to be the House minority leader. She announced that her intention will be to block the Republican majority agenda. In short, Pelosi believes the Democratic Party lost the midterm election because it did not deliver on the liberal promises made during the campaign. For her, the party needs to move left to attract a disenchanted electorate.


Clinton, whose position prevented her from playing an active role in the campaign, has also emerged as a key actor as democrats seek to regroup. News leaks and off-the-record remarks have fueled the rumour that Clinton will replace Joe Biden as the vice-presidential candidate in Obama’s re-election bid on the expectation that she might run for the presidency in 2016 — she will be 69 then. Others have even suggested that she ought to replace Obama as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.  Although she has high negatives among Republican sympathizers, she is well regarded as a consensus builder and moderate leader among independents. Her strong credentials on defence, anti-terrorism and her political experience are valuable assets in a party criticized for having a president who has failed to materialize the message of change into a reality of economic recovery.


In the next few months, as Democrats outline their strategy for the next year and the 2012 election, Pelosi and Clinton will embody the two divergent views that divide the Democratic Party. Though they both share strong anti-Republican positions, Clinton embodies a moderate and pragmatic approach to politics while Pelosi will seek to rebuild the party on its liberal leftwing base. The decision President Obama needs to make inevitably will bring victory for one of these women and the sounding defeat of the other. Washington does not seem big enough for these two powerful leaders to survive as the Democratic Party regroups after the 2010 midterm election defeat.