This morning, the president tweeted that Nancy Pelosi “will go down as the absolute worst Speaker of the House in U.S. history!”
Is this true?
When prominent political figures make sweeping historical claims, those claims deserve serious scrutiny and careful consideration of the evidence.
Pelosi’s performance matters. She occupies the most powerful position in Congress. As Speaker of the House, she leads the chamber the Framers designed to be most immediately responsive to the will of the people.
To reasonably assess Pelosi’s record compared to history’s worst Speakers of the House, we first need to look at the competition.
Andrew Stevenson (1827–34) shared blame with President Andrew Jackson for Indian removal, rampant political corruption, and killing the Second Bank of the US — financial deregulation that led to the Panic of 1837 and mass unemployment.
Linn Boyd (1851–55) and James Orr (1857–59) both promoted slavery, provoked the North, and helped cause the Civil War. Boyd extended slavery with Kansas-Nebraska Act, sparking violence in Bleeding Kansas. Henchman to our worst president ever, inept Orr ultimately turned traitor, broke his oath to the Constitution, became a Rebel, fought US forces, and served as a Confederate Senator.
Fredrick Gillett (1919–25) & Nicholas Longworth (1925–31) worked with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon and Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover to raise the tariff, cut income taxes for corporations and the rich, and impose racist immigration restrictions — all of which helped cause the Great Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.
Newt Gingrich (1995–99) distinguished himself both as a disastrous Speaker and a repugnant human being.
In 1980, his first wife had uterine cancer surgery. The very next day, Gingrich visited her in the hospital to demand a divorce.
In 1994, Gingrich innovated to win the Speaker’s gavel. He nationalized the midterm elections, getting most Republican House candidates to run on his Contract with America, a superficially appealing policy package, including…
- Reckless deregulation
- Antienvironmental legislation
- Cuts to antipoverty programs
- A “loser pays” bill to discourage frivolous lawsuits — but also deny the poor recourse to the law
- “Exclusionary rule” exemptions granting police more latitude to violate 4th and 5th Amendment rights
- More capital punishment and longer prison sentences for federal offenders
- Requiring a 60% House supermajority to pass any tax increase
- A balanced budget amendment to end deficit spending — thereby weakening the government’s ability to cope with economic crises
- 12-year term limits to purge Congress of corrupt lifers — but also denying voters the right to reelect capable Senators and Representatives
- Less US support for United Nations peacekeeping — amid shocking genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia
This Trojan Horse worked brilliantly, fooling a majority of voters. Republicans swept to power, made Gingrich Speaker, and then — thanks to Bill Clinton’s veto pen — failed to deliver on most of the foregoing.
Despite that failure, Republicans kept control of the House for 20 of the next 24 years. (Democrats had dominated the House for 60 of the preceding 64 years.) Evidently, taking out a Contract on America mattered more than actually fulfilling promises.
As Speaker, Gingrich also pioneered the politically suicidal strategy of trying to extort opponents by shutting down the federal government. This backfired badly on Gingrich — twice. Clinton’s reputation soared, while public approval of Congress cratered. (Trump pulled the same stunt on Congress in 2018, and also failed.)
Gingrich did learn. As the 1996 election loomed, the Speaker — desperate to achieve something — compromised with Clinton to pass welfare reform, tougher punishments for illegal immigrants, and the misnamed Defense of Marriage Act (later ruled unconstitutional). These popular measures helped both Clinton and Gingrich keep their jobs. In 1997, the odd couple passed the first balanced budget in three decades; the federal government ran surpluses for the next four years.
However, while impeaching Clinton essentially for infidelity, Gingrich had to resign because he got caught cheating on his second wife with a much younger woman who ultimately became his third wife. (In a show of solidarity between serial adulterers, Trump in 2017 made Gingrich’s third wife the US Ambassador to — of all countries — the Vatican; which is, of course, the world headquarters of the Catholic Church, an organization that still frowns on adultery and divorce.)
Moreover, Gingrich shares blame with hate radio pioneer Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes of Fox News for absolutely poisoning American political discourse. Relentlessly demonizing Democrats, they bashed sensible compromises as betrayals of principle. Gingrich, Limbaugh, and Ailes stoked antiscientific and conspiratorial thinking, steadily degrading the once-great GOP into a bigoted, corrupt, ignorant, fascist, unpatriotic sewer, ultimately birthing first the Tea Party, and then Trump.
Dennis Hastert (1999–2007) is the Twitterati’s consensus nominee for history’s vilest Speaker. A serial child rapist, Hastert the Unspeakable superseded Gingrich as the most revolting human being ever to serve in the role. But Hastert’s crimes mostly predated his term as Speaker; he raped underage student-athletes during his former career as a high school teacher and wrestling coach. He paid hush money bribes to former victims throughout his political career, but — evil personal character aside — how did Hastert do as Speaker?
Hastert shared blame with President George W. Bush’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies. In keeping with the GOP’s “Starve the Beast” philosophy, they viewed the budget surpluses inherited from Bill Clinton as a problem to be solved. Accordingly, Hastert and Dubya transformed those surpluses into gaping deficits by locking in a 10-year package of escalating tax cuts that heavily favored the rich.
After 9/11, normal statesmen would have put those unneeded tax cuts on hold to pay for the vitally necessary War on Terror, but Bush and Hastert were neither normal nor statesmen. Instead, they kept cutting taxes and simply increased borrowing to fund both the needed war in Afghanistan and the reckless invasion of Iraq.
Then, Hastert and Dubya blasted even bigger holes in the budget by borrowing still more to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare. This helped buy Bush’s reelection. Next, they tried to privatize Social Security, but popular outcry forced them to relent.
Finally, Bush and Hastert persisted with deregulation that helped create the housing bubble, the 2007 Financial Crisis, and the ensuing Bush Recession.
So, even if you ignore the fact that Hastert raped teen boys, he still ranks among history’s worst Speakers of the House.
John Boehner (2011–15), though far less personally repulsive than Hastert and Gingrich, still proved a poor Speaker.
With unprincipled zeal, he faithfully carried forward the GOP’s cynical Caucus Room Conspiracy — an obstructionist strategy hatched with help from Gingrich. By November 2008, most Americans admired Barack Obama and blamed the GOP for the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and ballooning deficits. Fearing for their party’s future, Republicans made a pact to oppose everything Obama proposed, irrespective of merit, in order to erode his popularity so they could regain power.
Decent statesmen might argue that this Machiavellian strategy was ill-timed in the depths of the country’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, when millions of Americans desperately needed help.
But there was no decency or statesmanship in the room, and little left in the party.
At any rate, it worked.
Boehner became Speaker, but the Tea Party quickly came to hate him for being too reasonable. He tried to appease them by repeatedly passing bills to kill Obamacare, but repeated presidential vetoes frustrated the Teabaggers. Irrational, incorrigible, and ineducable, they disdained compromise, believing they could beat Obama with a federal government shutdown. To his credit, Boehner had learned from Gingrich’s mistakes. The spray-tanned, chain-smoking Speaker knew shutdowns backfire, so when Teabaggers refused to back his budgets, he reached across the aisle for Democratic votes — a daring deviation from Caucus Room Conspiracy protocol. Enraged by Boehner’s bipartisan apostasy, Tea Party hotheads forced his resignation.
Paul Ryan (2015–19) succeeded Boehner as Speaker, and revived the Caucus Room Conspiracy through the end of Obama’s presidency. He pandered to the Tea Party in all of the usual ways (e.g., scheduling meaningless votes against Obamacare), and in some new ways, like letting South Carolina firebrand Trey Gowdy drag out his politicized Benghazi investigation — a sustained attack on Hillary Clinton’s character — over 3 years.
As early as 2015, Ryan recognized Donald Trump as a fascist menace and opposed his bid for the 2016 GOP nomination. But after the unconventional candidate won, Ryan knuckled under. The Speaker tolerated Trump’s treason, corruption, and racism to get what Ryan really wanted: deep tax cuts for corporations and the rich — the GOP’s true base since 1877.
For the previous 6 years, the GOP had invoked deficits to justify tight federal budgets and impede the Obama Recovery. Those restraints slowed but did not stop the rebounding economy. So, Trump and Ryan inherited moderate GDP growth and low unemployment from Obama.
Sensible people fix the roof when the sun is shining. In this case, that would mean running budget surpluses and paying down debts run up needlessly by Dubya and justifiably by Obama.
Sadly, few sensible people remained in the GOP in 2017. Thus, Ryan and Trump dusted off the old Starve the Beast strategy, irresponsibly running up deficits in good times that will likely limit the federal government’s ability to cope with inevitable future crises.
After delivering these irresponsible tax cuts, Ryan retired to distance himself from a radioactive president, lick his wounds, and wait for Trump to pass from the political scene.
What about Pelosi?
How will future historians compare Speaker Pelosi’s achievements to those of her least distinguished predecessors?
History will remember Pelosi as the first woman ever to serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Posterity will further note that Pelosi first won the gavel in the 2006 midterm elections, after voters rebuked President Bush for botching the War on Terror and Hurricane Katrina relief.
Pelosi as Speaker, 2007–2011
In her first stint as Speaker, Pelosi had to cope with the bursting of the housing bubble, the 2007 Financial Crisis, and the ensuing economic collapse — all caused and exacerbated by rash deregulation enacted under Presidents Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton. Pelosi’s House worked with Harry Reid’s Senate and President Bush to develop TARP, a bipartisan policy that helped stabilize the world financial system and avert a repeat of the Great Depression, but did so by bailing out banks “too big to fail” — holding billionaires and millionaires harmless while poor and middle-class Americans bore the brunt of the financial crisis and the Bush Recession. Millions lost homes and jobs, endured diminished incomes, and took hits to their net worth from which many still have not recovered.
Amid all this suffering, the GOP responded to the election of President Obama with the aforementioned Caucus Room Conspiracy, wherein leading Republicans agreed to abandon bipartisanship entirely and block every Democratic initiative, good or bad, in order to erode Obama’s popularity and return the GOP to national power. (It worked.) Fueled by the rising Tea Party, Republicans executed this strategy with impressive discipline, invoking runaway deficits and the mounting federal debt to justify their obstructionism.
Pelosi’s House and Reid’s Senate worked with Obama to pass modest stimulus packages, including ARRA, which helped reverse the recession and put a battered country back on a frustratingly gradual road to economic recovery. They sensibly tightened financial regulations to prevent future crises. And they passed Obamacare, boosting the proportion of Americans covered by health insurance from 80% to 90%.
But they lacked the political courage and skill to enact bolder economic reforms. They made no real effort to reverse four decades of deepening income and wealth inequality, or to hold banksters fully accountable for their crimes against the country. Battered by plutocrats, the American people seethed with righteous anger, but Pelosi, Reid, and Obama utterly failed to articulate a compelling liberal vision for our economic future, essentially forfeiting the public debate to the false, simplistic, and bigoted narratives of the Tea Party. Thus, Americans bizarrely began to blame Obama for the Bush Recession.
Republicans swept the 2010 midterms, ignominiously ending Pelosi’s first stint as Speaker.
As House Minority Leader from 2011–19, Pelosi worked diligently to defend Obama’s legacy and limit the damage done by President Trump.
Pelosi as Speaker since 2019
Historic Democratic gains in the 2018 midterms made Pelosi Speaker again in January 2019. Skillfully maintaining relative peace within an ideologically diverse party, Pelosi led the House in passing nearly 400 bills, including legislation to…
- Raise the minimum wage
- Create jobs by building infrastructure
- Defend and expand Obamacare
- Cut prescription drug prices
- Help veterans
- Enact universal background checks for gun buyers
- End voter suppression
- Secure elections from foreign interference
- Rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement
- Preserve net neutrality
The public remains mostly unaware of Pelosi’s prodigious legislative output. In the Trump Era, the president’s insults and lies drive news coverage, crowding out reportage on policy.
Of course, all 400 House bills landed dead on arrival in the Republican Senate. Gleefully calling himself the “Grim Reaper,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) simply refuses to schedule votes on most Democratic legislation. Staying true to the spirit of the Caucus Room Conspiracy, “Moscow Mitch” also generally refuses to negotiate with Pelosi to turn House bills into bipartisan compromise legislation.
Focused on legislation, Pelosi consistently restrained Democratic attempts to impeach Trump. Future historians will likely marvel that the House failed to recognize the Mueller Report as an implicit impeachment referral for obstruction of justice. They may also rue Pelosi’s failure to impeach Trump for obvious and chronic emoluments clause violations.
However, Pelosi finally acted when the president’s imbecilic Ukraine blunder handed the House an indubitably impeachable case. At the same time, Pelosi compromised with Republicans by approving minor revisions to NAFTA — so minor that Trump had to retitle the agreement (“USMCA”) to dupe supporters into believing he kept a campaign promise he essentially broke.
Speaking of failed campaign promises, Mexico did not pay for Trump’s absurd wall, and — thanks to Speaker Pelosi — neither have we.
Assessing Pelosi as Speaker
Future historians will likely rate Pelosi as a moderate success in her first stint as Speaker. She will receive credit for mitigating the impact of the 2007 Financial Crisis, fostering a slow recovery, and passing Obamacare. However, she will share blame for losing the House to the GOP in 2010.
Pelosi’s second stint as Speaker has fulfilled expectations to date. Her reputation will rise or fall from here depending on Trump’s impeachment trial and the outcome of the 2020 election.
Clearly, Pelosi is nowhere near the worst Speaker in history. Moreover, she seems unlikely to do anything so vile as to land in the company of disgraced Speakers like Gingrich and Hastert.
So: Wrong again, President Trump.