One of Nancy Pelosi's Democratic colleagues describes America's future speaker of the House as San Francisco on the outside, Baltimore on the inside. Translation? A liberal who is also pragmatic. True or not, it will have to be true if divided government is to work – and voters' centrist pull is heeded.
The San Francisco-Baltimore comparison comes from the political background of the soon-to-be first female House speaker. As a congresswoman from California, she represents one of the country's most liberal districts. But the pragmatism stems from her earlier experience as a mayor's daughter in the urban political scene of Baltimore.
This week, voters showed their unhappiness with one-party rule that often ignored the middle.
Independent voters swung away from a GOP that catered mainly to its conservative base – and not just by voting for a power shift in Congress. South Dakotans said no to an extreme antiabortion law that would have outlawed that procedure even in cases of rape or incest. Californians contracted with their Republican governor movie star for a sequel – but only after he apologized for veering around the Democratic legislature to call a special election last year in which all his ballot measures failed.
And in Mountain states and elsewhere, such as Pennsylvania, voters backed conservative Democrats – a force that will help keep Representative Pelosi's liberal tendencies in check.
Indeed, her agenda for the first 100 legislative hours of the Democratically controlled House is unlikely to expose divisions in her party: a minimum wage increase, cutting student-loan interest rates, and allowing the government to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices. Other action items, such as pay-as-you-go budgeting and lobbying reform, could entice Republican support.
Voters want Congress to clean up its act, and Pelosi will have to see that it does. In an election in which national issues outranked local ones, exit polls showed that the No. 1 motivator for voters was corruption and scandal in Congress (even surpassing Iraq, which preelection polls had ranked as the nation's top concern). As often happens, the electorate got it right: Lawmakers may disagree on issues, but honesty and trustworthiness must be their foundation.
As far as issues are concerned, there will be no getting around a change soon in Iraq policy. The majority of voters (55 percent) said they want to withdraw either all or some troops. A stalemated war without home support can't last forever, and Congress and the White House must now put their heads together to find a common way to deal with this most difficult issue.
A common way. That seems like an anomaly in Washington, but it has been done – and must be repeated. It happened in the Bush administration's early years, and after President Clinton received his 1994 midterm rebuke. And it was perhaps best exemplified in the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill. The two were vigorous political opponents who could still be on friendly terms and work together.
Within a day of the election, voters heard bipartisan words from the White House and Pelosi. What they want, though, is bipartisan action.