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The Economist: Pelosi rides high; Madam Speaker is turning out to be one of the Democrats' best assets

So far, the record has been impressive. Give or take a few fumbles--notably her doomed campaign to make her crony, John Murtha, majority leader--the successes have far outweighed the failures. Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, has pushed through a popular raft of reforms in double-quick time. She has masterminded a vote of no confidence in George Bush's new Iraq policy, allowing her troops to vent their anger without cutting off funding. And she has done all this while looking cool and stylish.

 

But can she keep it up? Life at the top of the greasy pole is going to be a lot harder from now on. She began her new career in the best possible circumstances, with her party cock-a-hoop to retake Congress after a decade in the wilderness. Her party's policies, too, were all poll-tested crowd-pleasers. A higher minimum wage! Cheaper student loans! Better health care! Who but a Scrooge could oppose them? The minimum wage has not been raised for a decade (many Republicans voted for the measure). Cheaper student loans are always a winner, though they will encourage colleges to raise their fees.

 

Now Ms Pelosi will have to deal with much thornier issues, such as immigration reform: issues that divide the Democratic base and require tough choices rather than generous gestures. If she co-operates with Mr Bush in dealing with these thorns, she risks handing him domestic victories that could help revive his flagging presidency. If she fails to co-operate, she risks becoming the do-nothing head of a do-nothing Congress. One of the clearest messages from the November elections was that the voters want Congress to solve pressing problems rather than engage in partisan point-scoring.

 

The issue of the Iraq war is also going to get much trickier. Ms Pelosi faces relentless pressure from her base--and from many of her colleagues in Congress--to confront Mr Bush head-on. But it is one thing to engineer a symbolic vote of no confidence in an unpopular policy, and quite another to start tying the hands of a president during wartime.

 

Mr Murtha--in many ways Ms Pelosi's right-hand man on Iraq--has suggested that the Democrats will finesse the problem by pursuing what critics call a 'slow bleed' strategy. They will avoid a head-on confrontation but will, instead, slowly limit Mr Bush's options--for example, by linking support for funding to strict standards for resting, training and equipping combat forces. But this is a dangerous strategy: doubly dangerous now Mr Murtha has been fool enough to spell it out. It risks the charge that Congress is trying to micromanage the war (conservatives say it is the most meddlesome attempt to tell the president what to do since the civil war). It also risks the even more damaging charge that it is trying to make Mr Bush's policy fail.

 

Ms Pelosi's circumstances will also get a lot more difficult. The party will find it harder to maintain its lustre as it starts handing out pork to Democratic interest groups; Democratic lobbyists are swarming over Capitol Hill like locusts at the moment. It will also get more fractious as strains grow between blue-state liberals (who want to destroy Mr Bush) and blue-dog Democrats (who represent districts where there is still residual respect for the president). The press will tire of writing stories about Ms Pelosi's dress sense and her taste for chunky pearls.

 

She will see her power diminish as attention shifts towards the presidential race, and eventually to the party's new champion. She will also discover--as Newt Gingrich did before her--that it is much more difficult to assert power from Congress than it is from the White House. Congress is a potentially unruly rabble. The White House has a unified power structure and a powerful megaphone.

 

These problems will certainly batter her image. But it would be a mistake to assume that she will be crushed by them. Ms Pelosi's most notable achievements over the past few months have been behind the scenes, not on the national stage--and these have laid the foundations for a successful speakership.

 

Since the 1970s the congressional Democrats have been dominated by powerful committee chairmen who did pretty much what they wanted when they wanted. Ms Pelosi has brought these barons under control. She has imposed six-year term limits on them. She has forced the likes of John Conyers to button their lips about impeaching Mr Bush. And she has eaten into the chairmen's prerogatives, notably by creating a select committee on climate change that will inevitably trespass on the turf of the energy committee.

 

All this suggests political skills of a high order: the chairmen had been biding their time in the wilderness in order to resume their jobs for life. It also suggests that Ms Pelosi is thinking of the long term. She can now impose a much more unified message on her party than any previous Democratic speaker, and can use her patronage to advance a younger cohort of chairmen.

 

It is true that many of these ideas, including term limits, were pioneered by Mr Gingrich. But if Ms Pelosi can imitate Mr Gingrich's successes without emulating his failures, that will be no bad thing. She lacks Mr Gingrich's personal foibles as well as his eccentric genius (though her reliance on Mr Murtha is troubling). She also lacks his raging ego. Mr Gingrich failed in his battles with Mr Clinton because he saw himself as America's first prime minister--a man who could rule Washington from Congress.

 

Ms Pelosi has Mr Gingrich's example to contemplate if she is ever tempted to over-reach. She also seems to have an instinctive understanding of the limits of her role. She knows that history will judge her not merely as the first female speaker of the House. It will also analyse how well she prepared the ground for the Democrats to retake the White House in 2008.