When Nancy Pelosi first took up the speaker’s gavel in January 2007, it was amid soaring talk of making history and breaking barriers. “For our daughters and granddaughters, today we have broken the marble ceiling,” she proclaimed at her swearing-in. “Now the sky is the limit. Anything is possible.”
Sixteen years, four presidents, two impeachments, one pandemic and a failed insurrection later, Ms. Pelosi will soon hand over that gavel for good and step down from House leadership amid a darker, more divided political landscape than she likely imagined in those first heady days. The George W. Bush years weren’t a high point for bipartisan comity and public trust in government, but they were a far cry from the violence-obsessed, conspiracymongering nihilism of Trumpism. But Ms. Pelosi has never been one to let the haters get her down, and some of her most important acts of leadership have come at some of the nation’s lowest moments.
History, being reductive, will remember Ms. Pelosi as the first woman to rise to the exalted post of speaker, just two steps away from the presidency. Those who have watched her work in the House for so many years will remember her as something arguably just as notable: a total badass.
By that term, I don’t mean that Ms. Pelosi is some swaggering, performative tough guy. Quite the opposite. In her two decades atop the House Democratic caucus, whether in the majority or the minority, she has been a strikingly effective leader in part because she doesn’t much give a flip about her public image. What matters to her is getting stuff done — be it passing legislation, thwarting the opposition’s agenda or protecting her members come election time. She is brutally pragmatic (too much so for some in her caucus) and has a shrewd sense of the political pressure points of allies and opponents alike. She doesn’t hog the credit for her clever ideas, nor does she waste time publicly rationalizing or blaming others for her bad ones. No one outworks her, and aides and allies have happily cultivated the legend of her endless energy. (Key points: Doesn’t need sleep. Runs on chocolate.)
Ms. Pelosi has frequently been underestimated. It is one of her competitive advantages. That whole grandmother-in-pearls thing led many to assume that she could be talked down to or outmaneuvered or intimidated. More than one Republican president and congressional leader has seen his best-laid plans shatter against her vaguely awkward, excessively bright smile. (Ms. Pelosi has never been natural in front of the camera.) Mr. Bush’s second-term goal of remaking Social Security never had a prayer. Even President Donald Trump was clearly in awe of her and had no idea how to deal with her treating him like a petulant man-child. He still doesn’t. The poor guy can’t even come up with an insulting nickname for her that sticks.
Many have misunderstood Ms. Pelosi’s political core. She has spent her congressional career representing San Francisco, fueling caricatures of her as a wild-eyed, bomb-throwing lefty extremist. But she is a political creature not of San Francisco so much as of Baltimore, where she was raised in a local Democratic dynasty. Her father, “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro, went from Maryland’s House of Delegates to five terms in Congress to three as mayor of Baltimore. She and her brothers learned to count votes and knock on doors practically from birth. Constituent service was a quasi-religion, and starting at age 13, the D’Alesandro children spent several hours a week fielding constituent requests and helping maintain a “favor file” on everyone they assisted. “We dealt with human nature in the raw,” Ms. Pelosi’s brother Thomas D’Alesandro III (who also served as Baltimore’s mayor) once told me.
The transactional, pragmatic politics of her youth have served Ms. Pelosi well as leader. When it comes time to whip votes or cut a deal, she has her own version of a favor file to consult: She knows precisely what the members need — not to be confused with what they want — and how much they can reasonably risk to take one for the team. Time and again, she has wheedled, negotiated and threatened her restive members into line to pass legislation ranging from Obamacare, which the speaker cites as her proudest legislative achievement, to last year’s bipartisan infrastructure package and the Inflation Reduction Act, which is really more about reducing health care costs and tackling climate change.
Ms. Pelosi has long been a favorite boogeyman for Republicans, her name invoked to raise gobs of campaign cash and whip the base into a fury. Few figures have generated so much conservative hysteria for as long as she. In recent years, this has become a more dangerous distinction as Mr. Trump has radicalized and mobilized his party’s fringier elements. Violent rhetoric and threats against lawmakers have proliferated, with Ms. Pelosi a particularly juicy target. Not that she would ever let them see her sweat. During the Jan. 6 attack, as MAGA rioters roamed the Capitol baying for her blood, she stayed calm and worked the phones. Last month, less than two weeks before Election Day, her husband, Paul, was assaulted in their home by an intruder searching for her. The speaker publicly kept her composure, refusing to let her party become distracted from the midterm battle.
Ms. Pelosi has not necessarily been a beloved leader. She plays favorites. She holds grudges. She does not suffer fools or mistakes with patient good humor. She is a demanding, micromanaging control freak who loosened her iron grip on her caucus only when threatened with internal revolt. Plenty of younger Democrats see her as too establishment, too compromised, too out of touch with the political crises of today. Some of her members have long been agitating for a leadership change. In recent years, several campaigned on the promise not to support her as leader. A smattering have tried to topple her.
And then there’s impeachment. It is no secret that Ms. Pelosi resisted impeaching Mr. Trump, especially the first time around, worrying about the political fallout. Even after bowing to her caucus and moving ahead, she insisted on keeping the investigation narrow. Both times, Republicans in the Senate refused to convict. And there will always be those who question whether, if she had allowed the process more time and space, things might have turned out differently. But this is the kind of second-guessing the speaker has little use for.
Ms. Pelosi is stepping back from leadership while her political stock is high within her party. Despite House Democrats losing the majority, pretty much everyone acknowledges that they dramatically overperformed this cycle, given the political fundamentals at play. And her personal brand has been burnished by her cool handling of the assault on her husband and the recently released video showing her poise during the Jan. 6 insanity. (With Congress under attack, she was ripping open a beef stick with her teeth? Ice-cold.)
The modern House is not known for producing great statesmen or even effective leaders. (Note to the incoming class: Belligerence is not the same as strength.) Recent decades have seen the Republican conference led by a series of unsteady, uninspiring figures — Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Denny Hastert. Oof. And the current minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, who is best positioned to be the next speaker, promises to be even weaker and more feckless. The only leader who even approaches Ms. Pelosi in terms of effectiveness (if little else) may be from the other chamber: Mitch McConnell, the long-serving chief of Senate Republicans.
Ms. Pelosi is an original, and we are unlikely to see another leader of her ilk any time soon. She elbowed her way to the tippy top of the congressional boys’ club, then set about distinguishing herself as the most formidable, most effective House leader since the middle of the last century. Love her or hate her, you have to acknowledge the fundamental badassery.
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