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Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader who imposes her agenda on Biden

The third US authority, a heavyweight in the party, ignores the White House’s warnings and provokes a crisis with her visit to Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi, last week in Tokyo.FRANCK ROBICHON (EFE)

Party discipline is very elastic in the United States, as President Joe Biden well knows. Leading Democrats, almost always the usual suspects (Joe Manchin, Kirsten Sinema), behave like loose cannons, tripping up White House-sponsored bills and sometimes derailing them, but none had gone so far as to push the world to the brink of an incendiary conflict. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives and third authority in the country, was awarded that dubious honor thanks to her controversial visit to Taiwan last week, in which she confirmed her commitment to the free world. “America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad,” she said last Wednesday in Taipei. Pelosi added the US “will not abandon our commitment to Taiwan and we are proud of our enduring friendship.” But there is concern in Washington about how China will respond to these statements.

Pelosi is one of the heavyweights of the Democratic establishment. She has been a member of Congress for California since 1987, and has served twice as House Minority Leader, between 2007 and 2011, as part of Barack Obama’s term, and in 2019, she became the first woman to be the speaker of the House. Therefore, despite Biden’s warnings about the inconvenience of visiting the island, her initiative does not seem like the decision of a novice, but rather one that responds to her own agenda, and probably also to that of Congress, including many Democrats, in favor of a more determined support for Taiwan than that offered by, in her opinion, timid Washington diplomacy. Hawks from both parties are pushing Biden to toughen his policy on China and the Senate had planned to send $4.5 billion in military aid to Taiwan last week, as well as declaring the island the “main non-member NATO ally,” but the commander in chief has asked for containment so as not to further fuel the fire around a self-governed island that Beijing considers its own.

Politics runs in the family of Nancy Pelosi. Her father, Thomas D’Alessandro, was a prominent Democrat at the time of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Pelosi is her married surname, also of Italian-American origin and she is faithful to certain cultural traditions such as a large family (five children) and a cultural Catholicism, though not exempt from friction with the curia, such as her defense of the right of women to abort. Like Biden, he too, a Catholic, that position has caused him more than one headache. The first, being denied communion by the archbishop of his diocese. In late June, on a visit to the Vatican, Pelosi, dressed in stark black, took communion at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. There are no images of the communion, which was confirmed by two witnesses next to her, but Pelosi and her husband were photographed with the pontiff before the Eucharist.

After graduating in Political Science in Washington in 1962, Pelosi spent six years raising her children in New York. The Pelosi family moved to San Francisco in 1968, where she began her career as a Democratic volunteer. She was soon recognized for her talent in fundraising campaigns, a key factor in the success or failure of a politician in the US. From there she made the leap to the Democratic National Committee, the party’s bridge of command, and, shortly after, to State Congress. Leader of the party in Congress since 2003 – another breakthrough of the glass ceiling – Pelosi uses her personal experience to arbitrate between opposing factions of the formation. She calls it the “mother of five children” strategy.

Despite the balance that she advocates in favor of party unity, she has given numerous signs of aligning herself with the most open or liberal faction – although the affiliations are sui generis in the US, without allegiance to the precise definition of the concept –, voting in favor of arms control measures and the right to abortion, or against the war in Iraq. Her critics accuse her of “west coast leftism.” The political microclimate of San Francisco, like that of Washington, was one of the targets chosen by Donald Trump to successfully attack the Democratic elites alienated from ordinary Americans.

Pelosi is a wealthy member of the elite. Her husband, businessman Paul Pelosi, owner of the Sacramento Mountain Lions football team, has been involved in several financial operations that sometimes border on insider trading. At the end of July, Paul Pelosi sold nearly 5,000 shares of chipmaker Nvidia for $4 million, just days before the House approved a major legislative package that provided subsidies and tax credits to boost the US semiconductor industry. This is not the only dubious example, but the Speaker of the House has always closed ranks with the father of her children, even after he was arrested in May in California for being drunk while driving a Porsche that was involved in an accident. The leader’s husband pleaded not guilty last week in court.

After the arrival of Obama to the presidency, and during the financial crisis, Pelosi helped the president carry out his stimulus program, worth $787 billion, in February 2019 in Congress; and a year later, the health reform known as Obamacare. Pelosi has never spared support for social measures such as those that Biden encourages today. Her role was also decisive in preventing the closure of the Administration during the last stretch of Trump’s mandate, when she managed to twist his arm. In January 2020, she opened the proceedings of the first impeachment against the Republican, of which he was acquitted, and a year later, she championed the creation of a commission to investigate the assault on the Capitol by insurgent Trumpists.

In the US, representatives are responsible to their constituencies and voters, rather than to the party and, of course, to any other earthly or heavenly authority. Faced with the dilemma posed by the conservative Archbishop of San Francisco, also Italian-American Salvatore Cordileone, retracting from defending the right to abortion or taking communion, Pelosi has responded by qualifying the repeal of the Roe v. Wade ruling by the Supreme Court as “outrageous and heartbreaking” a decision. The fact that Pelosi doesn’t shrink even before a world power is evidenced by her decision to visit Taiwan.

Translated by Xanthe Holloway.

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