For most of the last campaign cycle, Republican ad-makers treated then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi like a piñata.
They used her name and image in thousands of GOP television spots around the country, trying to turn the midterm election into a referendum on her liberalism and “San Francisco values.” That effort failed, of course, because midterms are never about the minority party’s congressional leadership, at least not when the president is someone as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump.
But Pelosi, who turns 79 today, didn’t merely survive the GOP attacks. She has prospered and continues to be the glue that holds the Democratic Party together, proving again and again that those of us who believed last summer that her party would be better off with new leadership were completely wrong.
In fact, Pelosi may be the only individual now able to keep her party together and keep Trump back on his heels. Pelosi — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor Rep. Ilhan Omar — remains the leader of the Democratic Party, no matter how often Republicans and their allies try to paint the Democrats as a lunatic band of socialists preparing to ban cows and air travel.
Since last year’s election, Pelosi has shown her gifts as a leader, vote-counter and strategist. She succeeded in winning another term as speaker and, so far, has kept a more fractured party together.
Last August, almost three months before the midterms, The New Republic published a piece titled “The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms.”
The focus of that piece and others was the substantial number of Democratic House hopefuls who insisted that they could not and would not support Pelosi for speaker.
And yet, she successfully maneuvered through the mini-revolt of newly elected pragmatists from suburban, swing districts and outspoken progressives who wanted fresh leadership and were impatient for change.
Yes, she had to make a handful of deals to keep the speakership, including agreeing to only four more years in the position. But making deals is nothing new for Pelosi.
Only a few weeks later, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave Trump enough rope to allow him to hang himself (politically, that is) when the government shutdown and the president shouldered most of the blame.
Between two wings
How was Pelosi able to survive those very different challenges? One of the congresswoman’s great skills, a former House Democratic staffer told me recently, is that “she is comfortable both with being in the establishment and with challenging the establishment.”
While Pelosi has long political bloodlines and was elected to the Democratic National Committee in her mid-30s, she hasn’t always been the insider she has become.
When she defeated Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in a fall 2001 contest to become the House Democrats’ new whip, The Washington Post observed that while Hoyer “had chaired the Democratic Caucus and served in other leadership posts, Pelosi styled herself as an outsider who would bring a fresh approach to inside-the-Beltway politics.”
Only 13 months after winning the whip job, Pelosi was elected House minority leader by her party. That made her the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate.
She ran, she said back then, “as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”
Apparently, Pelosi had no problem morphing from insurgent outsider to experienced legislator in the blink of an eye.
As a woman in an arena dominated by men, Pelosi had to see herself as something of an outsider intent on making history.
That fact may well make it easier for her to understand the ambition and impatience of her younger House colleagues, many of whom are women.
In spite of her liberal bent, Pelosi is smart enough and strategic enough in her thinking to know where her party can and cannot go.
Her efforts to short-circuit talk of possible impeachment is just the latest example of her savvy.
Her ideological positioning in the party, her gender and her fundraising IOUs have allowed her to survive when others might have lost control of House Democrats.
Even those new House members who would like the party to change more are quick to respect Pelosi.
They understand that she rose up through leadership starting at a time when junior members were expected to be “seen but not heard.”
Of course, Pelosi’s role as party leader will end about a year from now, when the Democratic Party has a de facto presidential nominee.
That person will represent the party nationally, though Pelosi, as speaker, will still have a significant voice.
For years, observers of the House have been asking each other when Pelosi will call it quits. Her recapturing of the speakership, combined with her promise not to serve more than two more terms in the House’s top post and her age, suggest that retirement is fast approaching.
That development, whenever it happens, is likely to be a far bigger headache for the Democratic Party than the gentlelady from California has ever been.
Note: This column appeared initially in the March 26, 2019 issue of Roll Call.