The Toughness of Nancy Pelosi

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Barack Obama probably has a lot of good stories about Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, who announced, in a speech on the floor of the chamber on Thursday, that she would not seek a leadership role in the next Congress. One of them, which Obama told in his memoir “A Promised Land,” involves a moment in early 2010 when the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—was in dire trouble on the Hill. A version of the bill had passed the Senate with a filibuster-proof sixty votes, but House Democrats had their own version of Obamacare, and so the expectation was that the Senate would have to vote again once the differences were worked out. Then, in a surprise setback, a Republican, Scott Brown, won a special election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy—so the filibuster was back. One option, which some key figures around Obama favored, was to scuttle the transformative legislation, and simply try to get sixty Senate votes for a handful of not-so-controversial improvements in health care.

The other was to attempt a feat of high-risk legislative acrobatics: get the House to pass a Senate bill that many representatives already thought was unacceptable, and then pass certain fixes through the arcane process of “reconciliation,” which allows a narrower set of measures but requires only a simple majority. Obama got on the phone with Pelosi. “For the next fifteen minutes, I was subjected to one of Nancy’s patented stream-of-consiousness rants—on why the Senate bill was flawed, why her caucus members were so angry, and why the Senate Democrats were cowardly, shortsighted, and generally incompetent,” Obama wrote. (The rant sounds like something worth patenting, in terms of its enduring utility.) When Pelosi paused to take a breath, Obama asked, “So does that mean you’re with me?” The Speaker “impatiently” replied, “Well, that’s not even a question, Mr. President. We’ve come too far to give up now.” She added, “If we let this go, it would be rewarding the Republicans for acting so terribly, wouldn’t it? We’re not going to give them the satisfaction.” When Obama hung up, he turned to some aides who’d been waiting anxiously in the room and said, “I love that woman.”

Pelosi got Obamacare through the House by a vote of 219–212, a margin that seemed narrow at the time, given that the Democrats held more than two hundred and forty seats. It’s about the same margin that she’s had to work with in holding her caucus together for the past two years, and quite possibly more than Representative Kevin McCarthy, or whichever other Republican succeeds her, will have to deal with.

There had been an expectation, or dread, that the 2022 midterms might be something like the 2010 midterms, when the Democrats lost more than sixty seats, and after which Pelosi had to turn the Speakership over to John Boehner and embark on an eight-year sojourn as the Minority Leader, before winning it back in 2018. Instead, as the results were coming in last week, it briefly seemed plausible that the Democrats might actually hold the House, as they did the Senate. That led to speculation about whether Pelosi might decide to try to stay in the Speaker’s job after all. Pelosi, though, is known for her matchless ability to count votes. Obama’s observation about her “stream-of-consciousness” rhetoric is, in a way, deceptive, making her legendary mental catalogue of what might motivate each member sound like merely untrained instinct. Politico, in summing up her career this week, spoke instead of Pelosi’s “precision.” And, as she demonstrated when she took the gavel in the early-morning hours of January 7, 2021, to keep a reconvened House from wandering off course, she can be focussed and tougher than anyone in the room when it counts, marking the place where the nonsense stops. This stream knows where it needs to flow.

Pelosi is also known for another sort of counting: she is very adept at raising money. Although Pelosi is leaving the leadership, she will stay in the House, representing San Francisco, and, presumably, continue to fund-raise. One of her aides admiringly calculated for the Washington Post that she might have raised a lifetime total of about $1.3 billion in political contributions. Perhaps that’s an accomplishment. But a fair criticism of Pelosi is that she has been a key and active player in the growth of an increasingly toxic culture of money and politics. Her reluctance to push through the House new, effective limits on stock trading by members of Congress and their families, including her own, is only one element of that culture.

As Pelosi recounted in her speech on Thursday, her political apprenticeship began with her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., who was himself a House member and a mayor of Baltimore. (One of her brothers served as that city’s mayor, too.) Her speech was a collection of the sort of touchpoints that Pelosi often turns to—she quoted “The Star-Spangled Banner” and various founding documents, as well as Abraham Lincoln—and evocations of the nation’s progress. She pointed to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, and to her own career. Pelosi also said that “the hour has come for a new generation” to lead the caucus. She is eighty-two years old. Although she did not name him, her presumed successor is Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, who is fifty-two. Jeffries is expected to be joined in the leadership by Katherine Clark, of Massachusetts, who is fifty-nine, and Pete Aguilar, of California, who is forty-three. In addition to Pelosi, they would displace Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, the House Majority Leader, who is eighty-three, and Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina, the Majority Whip, who is eighty-two.

Pelosi was first elected to office when she was in her late forties, and her five children (whom she named in her speech, along with her many grandchildren) are no longer young. On January 6, 2021, the mob in the Capitol went looking for “Nancy,” and it was impossible to miss—in their chants, in Donald Trump’s attacks on her, and in the innumerable negative political ads featuring pictures of her with her features distorted—a certain bitter misogyny. Obama may love her, but there is something telling about how eagerly she is hated. It is a bad measure of where we still are as a country, made worse by Trumpism.

The most recent, and shocking, expression of the place that she holds in the conspiratorial imagination is, of course, the attack on her husband, Paul Pelosi, by a man who said that he was looking for “Nancy.” In her speech, Pelosi called Paul her “beloved partner,” and expressed gratitude for people’s prayers for his recovery, which continues. In a meeting with reporters on Thursday, she said that the attack had not been a reason for her to step down. “If anything, it made me think again about staying,” Pelosi said. “No, it had the opposite effect. I couldn’t give them that satisfaction.” ♦

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