Nancy Pelosi reflects on the imperfect end of an era

eEver since the election, Nancy Pelosi says, Democrats in Congress have been asking her to remain their leader. Of course she knew what they were really doing: a hearing just in case.

“Our members just blew up my phone to stay,” she says, “which is a good thing, because if I don’t stay, then they get the points for saying stay, and if I do…” she trailed off, laughing. No matter what she decided, they knew it would be in their best interest to be on her good side going forward.

For two decades, it has been in the interest of every Democrat in Congress to stay in Pelosi’s good graces. Since winning her first leadership position in 2001, she has ruled the House Democratic caucus with an iron fist and velvet glove, keeping her fractious party nearly in step during historically tumultuous times. From the Iraq War to the financial crisis, through health care reform and the government shutdown, through two presidential impeachments, a pandemic and an attempted insurgency, she was a steady force and a consummate operator. There is no national politician of her era can match its combination of legislative power, vote-counting skill, negotiating skill, and fundraising ability.

On Thursday it was finally time to move on – sort of. Shortly after noon she gave a short speech in the hall, announcement that he will not seek re-election as House Democratic leader. It was time, she said, “for a new generation to lead the caucus of the Democrats that I so deeply respect.” Still, she couldn’t bring herself to step down completely: She owed it to her constituents in San Francisco, she said, to stay on as a regular member of Congress and finish out her two-year term. Like the man who fakes his own death and then sneaks off to the funeral, she will stick around to see how her people try to cope without her.

Nancy Pelosi waves to colleagues as she is nominated as the next Speaker of the House during a swearing-in ceremony for the 110th Congress in the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on January 4, 2007. (Chip Somodevilla —Getty Images)

Nancy Pelosi waves to colleagues as she is nominated as the next Speaker of the House during a swearing-in ceremony for the 110th Congress in the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on January 4, 2007.

Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Just after his speech, the 82-year-old House Speaker sat at a white-covered table in a small, ornate room off the House floor known as the Board of Education, a hidden room where former Speaker Sam Rayburn, a Democrat, used to hide and relax. Then-Vice President Harry Truman was playing cards with Rayburn here in 1945 when he learned that FDR had died and he would become president. Rayburn had painted one wall with a Texas seal; on two others, Pelosi recently added her own touches: a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge and a tribute to women’s suffrage.

Pelosi was contemplating the not-quite-end-of-the-age and struggling to unwrap a package of chocolate chip cookies. “What was important to me was how we did in the election because we were on a bad track,” she told a small group of reporters. “Are you really storming the Capitol? And the reaction of noncommittal Republicans? And I knew we could win.”

Her party had just lost the House, weeks after a crazed intruder broke into her California home and beaten up her husband with a hammer. But there was little sense that Pelosi was surrendering in defeat. In an election that history and many prognosticators predicted would spark a Republican wave, the Democrats surprisingly they persisted. The resulting GOP majority would be slim, leaving the Senate in Democratic hands.

The Oct. 28 attack on Paul Pelosi, the speaker’s husband of 59 years, influenced her decision to stay in Congress, but not in the way many people thought. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, well, after they’ve done this, I can’t even think about anything else,'” she says. “No, it had the opposite effect. I couldn’t give them that satisfaction.

Read more: Nancy Pelosi doesn’t care what you think about her.

This steely tenacity, this refusal to let others define her path, is a major theme my Pelosi biography. It’s been the hallmark of her political career, from her forays into the male-dominated ranks of Congressional leadership to her opposition to former President Donald Trump. As the youngest child and only daughter of three-time Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alessandro, politics was in Pelosi’s blood; she first set foot on the House floor as a toddler when her father was in Congress. But when she finally ran for office herself at age 47 — after raising five children and serving for decades as a political fundraiser, strategist and volunteer — it was from another coast, under a different name. with its own political identity.

Nancy Pelosi at campaign headquarters on the night of the primary election, April 7, 1987. (Deanne Fitzmaurice—San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

Nancy Pelosi at campaign headquarters on the night of the primary election, April 7, 1987.

Deanne Fitzmaurice—San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Ask Pelosi about her legacy, and the first thing she’ll mention is the Affordable Care Act. However flawed and incomplete the 2010 Act’s guarantee of universal health care turned out to be, it represented the fulfillment of a century of liberal aspirations and the pinnacle of Pelosi’s legislative prowess. She moved mountains to get it through the House, at one point nearly breaking down in tears as she pleaded with a group of liberal feminists to swallow the nasty compromise on abortion funding. Then, after a special election robbed Democrats of their majority in the Senate, she urged then-President Obama not to abandon the landmark legislation. “If the gate is closed, you go through the fence,” she said at the time. “If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault. If that doesn’t work, we’ll be skydiving. But we’re going to get health care reform passed for the American people.” While most of the drama surrounding the bill’s passage revolved around the Senate, it never could have happened without Pelosi’s determination and drive.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands behind President Barack Obama as he signs the Affordable Care Act for America during a ceremony with fellow Democrats in the East Room of the White House on March 23, 2010. (Win McNamee—Getty Images)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stands behind President Barack Obama as he signs the Affordable Health Care Act for America during a ceremony with fellow Democrats in the East Room of the White House on March 23, 2010.

Win McNamee—Getty Images

She did so knowing that there might be a political cost, and indeed there was. Republicans won 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm elections, an election in which Pelosi was a central figure. Republicans have made her the subject of multimillion-dollar attack ads across the country, capitalizing on their base’s deep hatred of her and giving Peozzi unusual prominence as a congressional leader.

But Pelosi believed in getting power not for its own sake, but to do something with it. Obamacare is part of a legacy that includes two decades of liberal policy victories, from allowing gays to serve openly in the military to the historic climate investments of this year’s Cut Inflation Act. “It’s very hard work,” she told us. “You have to really know how to be a legislator.”

These legislative successes were all the more remarkable for the age in which they came. In the face of relentless Republican opposition, she held together a diverse faction of Democrats and drove a hard bargain in negotiations across the aisle. After Donald Trump became president, she led her party back to power, becoming speaker of the House for a second term in 2019 amid a government shutdown over border wall funding. Pelosi refused to back down and Trump soon capitulated. She would go on to impeach him twice while negotiating with his administration to secure trillions in COVID-19 relief funding.

Read more: Why Nancy Pelosi is taking on Trump.

Pelosi rejects the idea that she bears any blame for the toxic state of politics. “I take no responsibility for what the Republicans did to Congress. It’s not about traffic jams,” she says. “This is not about some equivalence between Democrats and Republicans. They’re anti-science, anti-government, and that’s where they are.”

The GOP’s lack of decency was evident in the reaction of many Republicans to her husband’s attack, Pelosi said. “Just think if your husband was in that situation and people would make a joke about it like it’s funny,” she added. “Raising bail money for the perpetrator, putting out a conspiracy theory about what it’s all about.” It’s so horrible to think that the Republican Party has come to this.” That attitude, she says, was part of what voters took away from the midterm elections.

Mark Wilson—Getty Images (2); Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images; Jim Watson—Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Pelosi has never groomed a successor, something she is often criticized for. Ambitious Democrats languished for decades waiting for a House leadership position. She has often expressed the opinion that power is never given, but must be taken by those who seek it. “I didn’t think that was the right approach, to anoint somebody,” she told us Thursday. “It’s really important that people have the legitimacy of being elected by the members.”

A free-for-all seems unlikely. Pelosi’s longtime deputy Steny Hoyer, a fellow Marylander who has known her since they worked for the same senator in 1963, announced Thursday that he will also remain in Congress, but not in leadership. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the 52-year-old Democratic caucus chairman, appears all but certain to win the minority leader position in the Democratic leadership election scheduled for Nov. 30, becoming the first black person to lead a party in Congress. The first woman speaker to pass the torch will once again make history.

Pelosi intends to spend the next two years in remission. “My life ahead is full of gratitude,” she says to her constituents and everyone else who has supported her over the years. She doesn’t plan to sit on any committees and doesn’t want to serve as something of a shadow speaker on the sidelines. “Thanksgiving is coming,” she says. “I’m not going to be the mother-in-law in the kitchen saying, ‘My son doesn’t like stuffing this way, this is the way we do it in our family.'” They’ll have their view. They will have their plan. It is up to the group to decide which way they want to go.

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Write to Molly Ball c [email protected].

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