NANCY PELOSI, MINORITY leader in the House of Representatives, did for Republicans on May 20 what George W. Bush could not. That day President Bush's pep rally with Capitol Hill Republicans drew measured applause, but in a press conference the San Francisco Democrat delivered enough sparks to ignite Republican furor. "I believe that the president's leadership and the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment, and experience," Rep. Pelosi told reporters. "The emperor has no clothes."
"Incompetence" is a fighting word, and its utterance helped Republicans to stop fighting among themselves. Earlier that week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Arizona Senator John McCain had traded jabs over taxes. Then Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) accused Senate Republicans of grandstanding with the prisoner-abuse hearings. Mr. Hastert also squabbled with the White House on a highway bill. But Mrs. Pelosi's comments united the party.
"She apparently is so caught up in partisan hatred for President Bush that her words are putting American lives at risk," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay charged. House Speaker Dennis Hastert joined the retort: "Was it incompetence that put Saddam Hussein in jail? Was it incompetence that disbanded the Taliban? If we followed Mrs. Pelosi's advice, Saddam Hussein would still terrorize the citizens of Iraq. We would still be waiting for the UN to make any decision regarding our national security."
All this is what Republicans hoped for and Democrats feared when Mrs. Pelosi took over Dick Gephardt's leading role among House Democrats in late 2002. Pundits from The New Republic and Slate worried that Mrs. Pelosi's leftism would marginalize Democrats. Jonathan Alter, the liberal Newsweek columnist, wrote that Mrs. Pelosi "makes the Democratic caucus look more dovish than even the French."
Mrs. Pelosi came into politics with a liberal pedigree. Her father was a New Deal Democrat in Congress and also the mayor of Baltimore, a position her brother later held. Mrs. Pelosi worked as a Democratic fundraiser and activist even before her election to congress in 1987. During her time in the House, Mrs. Pelosi has split time between fundraising for the party (she wins reelection easily in solidly Democratic San Francisco), vicious attacks (she once called the first President Bush a "jerk"), and her crusades (AIDS, homosexuality, and nonmilitary spending).
Her first year as the House Democrats' leader wasn't as disastrous as some colleagues had feared. While she only pulled 118 Democrats together to oppose an $87 billion spending bill for Iraq, she forced Mr. Hastert to keep voting open for hours to ensure passage for the Republican-backed Medicare bill. Then, only 16 Democrats broke ranks with her. With her unblinking stare and high-rise eyebrows, Mrs. Pelosi has seemed telegenic at times, rather than mean or shrill.
Still, Capitol Hill Republicans have adopted "Pelosi Democrats" as their chief insult. And when the California Democrat lets her guard down and viciously attacks the president, she becomes every bit of what many Democrats dreaded.