The Staying Power of Nancy Pelosi
And its consequences.
National Journal | September 11, 2015
WASHINGTON ATTRACTS A unique breed of workaholics and obsessives, but even among this atypical sample set, Nancy Pelosi is a striking case. The stories about her seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy are legion. Brian Wolff, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recalls planning a cross-country swing headlined by Pelosi to whip up support and money in the final weeks of the 2006 midterms. Wolff, like any reasonable person, included some free time in Pelosi’s hellish itinerary. “I remember when we were walking through this extensive schedule, meeting to meeting, campaign event to campaign event,” he told me. “She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t do downtime.’ ”
Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s former communications director, remembers getting a call from Pelosi on the day before Christmas one year. The Chinese government had just released a famous dissident and Pelosi wanted to issue a statement. Daly was in the middle of baking cookies with his kids. “It’s Christmas Eve,” he protested. Pelosi replied, “The dissidents haven’t been celebrating Christmas.” Daly wrote the statement.
George Miller, the former California congressman, told me about a routine he’d developed to deal with Pelosi’s habit of calling at strange hours. As Pelosi’s lieutenant in the House, Miller was expected to be reachable on his cell phone at almost any time when Congress was in session. But Miller, as a human, needed sleep, so before he went to bed, he poured himself a glass of water and placed it on his nightstand. That way, when Pelosi called after he’d fallen asleep, he could bolt upright, chug some water, clear his throat, and sound as if he’d been wide awake and hard at work. “My job wasn’t to be asleep,” he told me.
It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, especially remarkable that the first female speaker of the House is a workhorse. Women pioneers, after all, often must expend twice as much energy as men for half the credit. What is remarkable is that, having been deposed from the speakership almost five years ago, Pelosi still works as frenetically at the business of leading her caucus as she ever has. At the age of 75, she has given no sign of slowing down, or letting go.
I spent a day in mid-July trailing Pelosi around California, and I saw her feverish pace in action. After arriving in Los Angeles the night before, Pelosi awoke, as she typically does, at around 5:30 a.m. Her workday began with a round of phone calls with key staff members. At 9:30 a.m., she headlined a press conference in Santa Monica alongside a freshman congressman named Ted Lieu, where she stumped for a long-term reauthorization of the federal Highway Trust Fund. She shuttled around Los Angeles for five separate fundraising meetings on behalf of the DCCC, then caught a flight to her hometown of San Francisco. At just after 8:00 p.m., she met me at Crissy Field, a public park on the city’s northern shore. We walked and talked for more than an hour, discussing everything from her recent meeting with Hillary Clinton (“she’s just fabulous”) to her Baltimore upbringing. In between all of these appointments, she made dozens of calls to members of her caucus, urging them to stand behind President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran and to go public with their support as soon as possible. And this, one of her staffers told me, was a comparatively slower day.
Pelosi’s breakneck schedule confounds even some of her friends in the House. “I’ve said to her on more than one occasion: ‘Why are you doing this? Why aren’t you sitting in the vineyards with your grandkids enjoying life?’ ” says Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania.
When Pelosi’s daughter Christine dropped the R-word—“retire”—into one of our conversations, I wondered aloud, half-joking and half-serious, whether that day might never come. “No, it won’t!” she said. “It’s like the Thurber story about the moth that every day was going to fly to the moon. Every day, he’d get in his little moth bed and say, ‘I got closer.’ ” (In Thurber’s telling, it’s a distant star—not the moon—the moth has its sights set on, and the moth’s parents and siblings end up burned to death.)
Pelosi, for her part, couldn’t be less interested in discussing her future. Self-reflection in public, I came to learn, is anathema to her. “She’s not one who really injects her psychological being into a conversation,” Christine told me. “She’s just not like that. She’s a deeply reflective person, she does a lot of soulful work, she’s just not going to tell you about it. It’s a very Catholic thing. … You’re not going get a quote from her that’s going to be a deep, self-reflective summation. So I wouldn’t go looking for one.”
The mystery of Pelosi’s continuing enthusiasm for her job is deepened by the fact that, realistically, she stands practically zero chance of ever becoming House speaker again. The most recent round of redistricting following the 2010 census created too many safe Republican seats—and even if the Democrats somehow manage to engineer a wave election next year, they are extremely unlikely to win back the House.
Among the nearly 40 people I spoke to for this story—family members, friends, current and former colleagues, mentors, rivals, longtime observers—theories abound as to why Pelosi remains in Congress and so engaged in her job as minority leader. First elected on a pledge to combat AIDS, she won’t leave until a cure is found, several friends of hers told me. A former housewife and mother to five children, she wants to close the gender pay gap and mandate paid family leave, her spokesman told me. An avowed environmentalist, she wants legislation stopping climate change, said several people who have worked for her. I heard the word “unfinished” a lot.
And no one close to Pelosi had any ideas—on the record, at least—about when she planned to call it quits. (Pelosi herself was entirely unhelpful on the subject: When I raised the issue of retirement, she shot back: “Did they ask Tip O’Neill when he was going to retire? I don’t think so.”) “Obviously, it’s a question people have,” George Miller told me. “I don’t have a good answer for you.” One of her closest friends in Congress, the normally loquacious Rep. Rosa DeLauro, was tongue-tied on the matter: “I don’t have any idea what her timetable is.” And when I asked the same question of former Rep. Henry Waxman, another Pelosi stalwart, he demurred: “She’s sticking to it for as long as she wants to. How long that will be, that will be up to her.”
But the great unknown of how much longer Pelosi will soldier on isn’t the only question raised by her amazing and somewhat counterintuitive political endurance. There is also the matter of what her ongoing leadership means for the Democratic Party. What advantages accrue to the party because she remains at the helm? What are the disadvantages? Would the party be better off without her? Or is she, even in the autumn of her career, uniquely suited to the task of holding it together?
THE FIRST TIME I paid a visit to Pelosi, I couldn’t find her office. It was a Monday afternoon in late June. A bored-looking police officer, seeing my puzzled expression, asked where I was headed and pointed me in the direction of H-204, which, in my defense, can only be found behind a door marked H-207.
Pelosi’s office prior to 2011—the speaker’s office—was arguably the choicest real estate on Capitol Hill. Located just off the Capitol rotunda, it’s filled with famous art and architecture, and the speaker’s balcony affords panoramic views of the National Mall. Her current digs are far less impressive. The balcony is far smaller, and instead of the Mall, it overlooks the tourist-infested East Front Plaza and Library of Congress.
The loss of the speakership was dramatic not just because of the disappearance of perks but because the two years that preceded it were so successful, for both Pelosi and her party. The period from 2009 to 2010—during which Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and the White House—was one of the most productive congressional sessions of the last century, according to Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (and National Journal contributing editor). In a short span, Pelosi muscled through one major piece of legislation after another: the $840 billion stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank banking-reform bill, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed the House with GOP votes (before dying in the Senate).
But one of Pelosi’s favorite sayings—she has many—is that “everything in this town is perishable; you just don’t know the date.” And the perishable date on her speakership came quickly. The Democrats got clobbered in 2010 for many reasons, but it didn’t help that, as effective as Pelosi had been as speaker, she proved equally useful to the GOP in that year’s elections. Republican candidates and operatives fixated on her with the same animosity and intensity that the Democrats used against Newt Gingrich during his speakership in the 1990s. You couldn’t watch television in a competitive House district without hearing Pelosi’s name and seeing some unflattering picture of her. More than $65 million was spent on 161,203 TV spots in 2010 that focused on Pelosi, according to research conducted by the Campaign Media Analysis Group for CNN.
In the final stretch of the 2010 campaign, Pelosi was so toxic to her party that she abstained from campaigning for her fellow Democrats and instead focused on raising money at closed-door fundraisers. But there was nothing she could do to stop the Republican landslide, in which the GOP gained 63 seats. In the aftermath, some Democrats blamed her directly. “She is the face that defeated us in this last election,” outgoing Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida said at the time.
A handful of moderate Democrats had not only disassociated themselves from Pelosi but actively run against her. One of them, Rep. Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog Democrat from North Carolina and former professional football player, announced he would challenge Pelosi for minority leader if no one else stepped up, even though he admitted he stood little chance of winning. “I’ve said all along, I’m hoping that Nancy Pelosi will step aside and will allow the leaders that are available, who are ready to go, but because of her being at the very top right now, no one’s willing to throw their hat in the ring,” Shuler told CNN. “And if it comes down to this coming week and she doesn’t step aside, then I will challenge her.”
Some House Democrats sought to delay the party’s internal leadership vote—typically held not long after Election Day—until early December, a move described at the time by one Democratic aide as a “proxy vote” against Pelosi. In the end, the delay measure failed and so, too, did Shuler’s bid. On November 17, she won the race for minority leader—the first former speaker to do so in nearly 60 years—by a 150-to-43 vote. Yet it was clear that Pelosi’s once-unshakable grip on the Democratic caucus had been weakened.
In the years after losing the majority, she found herself mostly cut out of the major negotiations on Capitol Hill—the 2011 “Grand Bargain” between Speaker John Boehner and President Obama, say, or the various tax deals negotiated by the White House and Senate leadership.
During the final two years of her speakership, Pelosi had enjoyed a good enough working relationship with the White House, but it had never been a particularly close one. “In the case of the Obama administration, they came in with what we felt was a Senate focus because of the challenge of getting anything through the Senate,” John Lawrence, Pelosi’s former chief of staff, says. “And so there was always a sense, I don’t know if it was taking the House for granted, but they knew ultimately she would be able to pass what they needed.”
After 2010, though, as the administration shifted its attention away from Pelosi to cutting deals with Boehner and House Republicans, the Obama-Pelosi relationship sank to new lows. “She gets to be very sensitive sometimes and could be irate if she thinks that people are not being respectful,” one former colleague of Pelosi’s told me. “She has been a very good player supporting the administration, but she was often very angry at the president and people in the administration. They’d go to meet with Harry Reid; they wouldn’t meet with her. I could see at times that she would get very [bent] out of shape on some things. Sometimes justifiably; sometimes it was a feeling of being dissed.”
“I thought the president has really little use of the entire Democratic caucus in the House,” George Miller says. “I never got the sense he gave us full value for the struggle that we were involved in.” Miller calls it “inattention” on the part of the Obama administration and recalls “sort of the assumption that they had that there wasn’t much point in making an investment there.” When I asked Miller why this was the case, he said: “I don’t know. You’d have to ask [Obama]. I thought it was a huge mistake.” (White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in response that “the president has said many times that much of what we’ve been able to accomplish in Congress over the past six years would not have succeeded without a strong, relentless partner in Congress, and Nancy Pelosi has been that partner.”)
Pelosi predicted that she would win back the majority in 2012, but it was not to be. The structural challenges were simply too tough. Despite their candidates receiving 1.4 million more votes overall than the Republicans, House Democrats gained only eight seats in 2012—a far cry from the 25 they needed to net in order to win back the majority.
This time, it seemed as if there was a chance Pelosi might actually quit. A year earlier, her daughter Alexandra had told a conservative blogger that her mother “would retire right now if the donors she has didn’t want her to stay so badly.” The story caused a stir, and Pelosi’s office swiftly dismissed the quote as “totally untrue” and “wishful thinking on the part of a right-wing blog.” After the 2012 elections, there were rumblings that Pelosi’s office had scheduled the leadership elections for after Thanksgiving as a way of “buying time for challengers” to run against, among others, Pelosi’s No. 2, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. (Hoyer, a pro-business Democrat, is often seen as an ideological foil to the more liberal Pelosi. Pelosi’s office denied that it scheduled the elections based on this calculation.)
Ultimately, Pelosi decided to stay on and was reelected once again. But the 2014 midterms were even bleaker. House Democrats lost 13 seats, bringing the caucus to 188 members, its smallest size since the 1930s. Not only that, but Pelosi watched two of her closest allies, Henry Waxman and George Miller, hang up their spurs.
Waxman recalls his conversation with Pelosi when he informed her he wasn’t going to run again. “She said: ‘Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry to hear it. Is everybody OK? Are you sick? Are you not sick?’ ” Waxman told me. “I told her, ‘No, it’s time for me to leave.’ ” As he remembered it, Pelosi’s mind immediately shifted to the question of who was in line, seniority-wise, to fill his coveted position as the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
“So, who’s after you?” he recalls Pelosi asking him.
“Well, Frank Pallone,” he replied. Pallone was a well-liked, 13-term New Jersey Dem-ocrat, who is seen as closer to Steny Hoyer than Pelosi.
“Who’s after him?” There was somebody else. And after that person?
“Anna Eshoo.” Eshoo was arguably Pelosi’s closest friend in Congress.
“Ooh,” he says Pelosi responded approvingly. (“I can’t confirm a private conversation verbatim,” a Pelosi spokesman said, “nor do I imagine Waxman could recall it word for word, either.”)
Pelosi subsequently would surprise many of her colleagues by publicly endorsing Eshoo, an unheard-of move by the Democratic leader. Current and former members I interviewed saw it as an affront to Pallone and poor judgment by Pelosi. “I thought that was not appropriate,” Waxman told me. “I think the other members felt it wasn’t appropriate, too. I think it hurt Anna Eshoo, because they thought that Nancy Pelosi was throwing her weight around, and people didn’t like it.” Pallone won a bitterly fought race over the third-in-line Eshoo by a vote of 100-to-90. The Pallone-Eshoo election took place in November 2014, which meant that the 114th Congress hadn’t even begun and already Pelosi’s leadership was being questioned.
The Pelosi spokesman downplayed her role in the race, saying: “Pallone and Eshoo have moved on. The caucus has moved on.” And in fact, over the past 10 months, there have been signs that Pelosi has found her groove again.
In March, Pelosi pulled off a major coup in a fight involving the Department of Homeland Security. Conservatives in the House had protested President Obama’s executive order protecting as many as 5 million immigrants from deportation by holding hostage a DHS funding bill: Block the executive order, they said, or DHS shuts down. At the negotiating table, Boehner proposed a three-week DHS funding bill to buy more time. At Pelosi’s direction, the Democrats rejected Boehner’s offer in favor of a one-week bill. Of course, the House would never reach a deal to fund DHS in just one week, and in reality, the Republicans didn’t want to cripple DHS and appear to be playing games with the nation’s security. Pelosi was effectively calling the Republicans’ bluff.
And it worked. Democrats got a clean bill to fund DHS for nine months that was free of the Republicans’ immigration provisions. Boehner “surrendered” to the Democrats, as The Washington Post put it, and the bill passed with 182 Democrats and 75 Republicans voting yes.
Later that same month, Pelosi and Boehner cut a rare bipartisan deal that reformed how Medicare reimburses doctors for various types of treatment. “Bipartisan love: Boehner, Pelosi strike deal to kick ‘doc fix,’ ” CNN headlined its story. Pelosi, it seemed, had found a way back to a center seat at the deal-making table.
Then, over the summer, she played a key role in lining up members in support of the president’s nonproliferation deal with Iran. By the time Congress returned from recess in September, she had already secured more than enough votes to sustain the president’s veto of any Republican-led disapproval measure.
In late July, GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina filed a motion to remove Boehner from the speakership, only the latest example of how unruly and rebellious the Republican caucus has become. “Boehner couldn’t be a better speaker for us,” says a source close to Pelosi, “because he’s such a weak person.” As Boehner’s grip on his caucus has weakened in recent years, Pelosi has been able to use Boehner’s inability to deliver GOP votes to her advantage. “She’s come alive this Congress,” one current House member told me. Says George Miller, who still speaks with Pelosi by phone and pays her the occasional visit: “There’s a spring in her step.”
TO UNDERSTAND HOW Nancy Pelosi has endured as Democratic leader, it helps to know a very basic fact about her biography: She was born to politics. Her parents’ home in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood was a salon, a gathering place for local pols, priests, businessmen, and union bosses—in short, the nerve center of a political machine presided over by Nancy’s father, Thomas “Big Tommy” D’Alesandro Jr.
The D’Alesandros were New Deal Democrats. A portrait of FDR adorned the living room in the D’Alesandro home, and Thomas and Annunciata named one of the children Roosevelt—“Roosey” for short. Big Tommy served two decades in the Maryland legislature and U.S. Congress, where he had a seat on the influential Appropriations Committee. He stored copies of the Congressional Record under Nancy’s bed. One of Pelosi’s first memories is visiting the Capitol with her father at the age of 4.
In 1947, D’Alesandro was elected mayor of Baltimore. Nancy saw firsthand what it takes to get anything done in office—how to cut deals and build coalitions. The D’Alesandros kept a legal pad near the front door, Marc Sandalow recounts in his biography Madam Speaker, and when someone came seeking help, the person’s name and phone number were written down and later typed onto index cards. During election season, the D’Alesandros opened their favor file to enlist canvassers, block captains, and other ground troops. So many people called the D’Alesandro home that Thomas had eight additional phone lines installed. At a young age, Pelosi said decades later, “I knew how to answer the phone and tell people where to go if they needed a bed in a city hospital or where to call to get into a housing project.”
Judging by her childhood, it’s not hard to see why Pelosi’s friends call her a “thoroughbred.” “It’s in the blood,” says John Burton, a former congressman and ally of Pelosi’s. As Brendan Daly recalls, Pelosi’s father taught her to always ask, “How many votes do you need, and where are you going to get ’em?” (Pelosi’s brother Thomas III also went into politics. He became mayor of Baltimore in 1967, a job he once described as “like having a plate of shit handed to you every day. You have to eat the shit, then the next day, you get another plate of shit and you have eat that, too.” Pelosi, by contrast, never curses and spells out even mildly strong language, routinely referring to this or that piece of GOP legislation as a “piece of c-r-a-p.”)
Pelosi’s family had high aspirations for her—just not in politics. “She was groomed for leadership but not for political leadership, not for public office,” her daughter Christine told me. “She never, ever thought she’d run for public office, because she’d never been told, ‘You can do this.’ ” While studying in Washington at all-female Trinity College, Nancy took a class at Georgetown called “Africa: South of the Sahara,” where she met Paul Pelosi, a fellow child of an Italian-American family. They married in Baltimore, moved to Manhattan, and eventually settled in Paul’s hometown of San Francisco. In a span of six years and one week, Pelosi had five children—four daughters and a son.
Her office put me in touch with Christine and Alexandra, who are now 49 and 44, respectively, each with children of their own. The two daughters told me about their mother’s upright and proper manner—“the art of gracious living,” is what Alexandra calls it—and her ruthless efficiency running a household with five rambunctious kids. Lunches were packed via assembly line, the kids set the table for breakfast after each night’s dinner, and the children often wore matching outfits. That way it was easier to round up the kids at the playground or the movies. (Even Paul Jr. wore a color-coordinated boy’s version of his four sisters’ outfits.) Gossip and tattling were verboten. Christine described her mother’s philosophy this way: “If you want to confide in each other that’s fine, but don’t confide in each other when you’re happy and bring it out as a sword when you’re mad at each other.”
The Pelosis lived in a spacious house in San Francisco’s Presidio Terrace neighborhood. The mayor was one of their neighbors. One day, Pelosi recalled, a friend who was plugged into the local political scene visited their home. The friend took a look around and said, “Hmm, you have a big house. We’ll be having lots of Democratic Party events here.” Pelosi thought to herself, That was presumptuous, but she said OK. Their home quickly became a fixture on the local fundraising circuit, with the Pelosi kids ferrying plates of hors d’oeuvres from the kitchen to the guests. But the way she tells it, her return to politics in earnest didn’t happen until 1976, when then-Governor Jerry Brown announced he was running for president. Pelosi had hosted events with Brown and gotten to know the governor. Drawing on her knowledge of Maryland politics and her family’s contacts in the state, Pelosi helped orchestrate a surprising victory for Brown in Maryland’s primary.
Brown fell short in his bid for the nomination, but the campaign established Pelosi’s credentials. She rapidly climbed the ranks to become chair of the California Democratic Party, and ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1984–1985. She told me the DNC chair race was the most instructive of her career. She ran on modernizing the party’s index-card-heavy technology and utilizing the computers and software emerging out of her backyard in the Bay Area. No newcomer to brass-knuckle politics, Pelosi says she was nonetheless stunned by how people she’d hosted in her home or thought to be her supporters attacked her during the DNC race. Critics called her an “airhead” and accused her of taking money from the National Rifle Association, which she hadn’t. The number of women saying she had a “Geraldine Ferraro problem” and asking who was taking care of her children surprised her. “Would anybody ask a man, ‘Who’s taking care of your kids?’ ” Pelosi said to me. “No. And frequently it’s women who are asking the question.”
She dropped out of the DNC race on the eve of the election. But in early 1987, Rep. Sala Burton—a canny political operative who’d succeeded her late husband, Phillip Burton, and who was suffering from colon cancer—announced she would not run again. On her deathbed, Burton tapped Pelosi to replace her. In April of that year, Pelosi won the Democratic primary by about 4,000 votes. Pelosi’s entire family attended her swearing-in ceremony in the Capitol. According to Sandalow’s biography, when her elderly father rolled past Democratic Speaker Jim Wright in his wheelchair, he slipped him some advice about Nancy: “She ought to be on Appropriations.” Big Tommy died of a heart attack three months later.
“I ALWAYS SAY to people,” Pelosi told me in one of our conversations, “think of going to a dinner with 450 people—and two tables are women in that whole room.” She was describing the composition of the House of Representatives when she arrived in June of 1987. There were 23 other women in the House then—12 Democrats and 11 Republicans—and they were treated more as a curiosity than colleagues, Pelosi told me.
Pelosi secured seats on the Government Operations and Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committees. (She would have to wait several years before getting on Appropriations.) Years later, Pelosi would tell her female colleagues of the time that she and several male members were in the midst of a tense discussion while walking off the House floor. As they talked, they passed through one set of doors and then another, at which point one of the men turned to her and said, “You can’t come in here.” “What do you mean?” an indignant Pelosi replied. “I’m an equal member of Congress. There’s nowhere I can’t go.” Her colleague replied, “This is the men’s room.”
Following the Republican Revolution of 1994, House Democrats found themselves in the strange position of being in the minority after more than four decades in power. To make matters worse, the Democratic leadership didn’t have many ideas for how to win the majority back. “They weren’t combat-ready,” says George Miller.
While the Democratic brass was eager to utilize Pelosi’s fundraising prowess, they were less interested in her ideas on campaign strategy and party messaging. The boiling point for Pelosi and many other Democrats came in the 2000 election. In California, Democrats netted five seats across the state; the caucus needed just three or four more gains in the remaining 49 states to win back the majority. Yet they fell short.
After such a disappointing showing, Pelosi flew the California Democratic Party’s consultants to Washington to share their tactics with the caucus. The Californians got a chilly reception, Miller told me. The caucus leadership scheduled the presentation by the consultants at an odd time, depressing attendance, and their ideas were mostly ignored by the powers that be. When the opening came, Pelosi knew for sure she was going to run for leadership. “One day, she says, ‘You know what? I don’t think these boys know how to win,’ ” Miller recalled. “ ‘Wanna win?’ ”
In 2001, Pelosi ran against Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland in a brutal intraparty race to be the party whip. She won (118-to-95) and climbed from whip to minority leader the following year, after Dick Gephardt decided to step down. Democrats failed to make any gains in 2004, but in 2006, they claimed 31 seats and won the majority. On January 4, 2007, Pelosi was sworn in as the first-ever female speaker of the House.
The next day, she returned to her hometown of Baltimore for a rally in Little Italy. The city celebrated her speakership by naming the block she grew up on Via Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi. Pelosi’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, had traveled to Baltimore for her mother’s homecoming. Afterward, Pelosi’s massive motorcade snarled traffic for miles in all directions as it left the city and headed back to Washington. As Alexandra told me, she and her family were getting nowhere trying to return home to New York. “Thanks a lot,” Alexandra recalled telling her mother. “You got us stuck in traffic.” Nancy Pelosi, keenly aware of how her life was about to change, replied: “At least you have your freedom.”
WHEN I VISITED Henry Waxman, who served in the House under eight different speakers and is now a lobbyist, I asked him what made Pelosi different from the other speakers he knew. “I remember when Tip O’Neill was speaker,” Waxman said. “He was an excellent speaker. But he came at the time when chairs were still pretty powerful. If Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and John Dingell, chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee, had a disagreement, they might take it [to Tip]. They’d say, ‘We’re going to go to Tip and have this resolved.’ Well, nobody would know where Tip was. He suddenly just disappeared.” This, of course, was before the days of cell phones. So, Waxman went on, it was left to members and their staff to hammer out a compromise. “While people were waiting around for Tip to come back from wherever he was, they would resolve the issue. That was a very successful strategy.”
By the time Pelosi got the speaker’s gavel, the power centers in the House had shifted from the committees to the caucus leadership—the speaker, majority leader, whip. Pelosi met on a weekly or biweekly basis with committee chairs, freshmen and sophomore members, and various caucuses. She rarely dictated how members should vote on any one bill, instead checking in incessantly by phone and in person, asking what a member was thinking, how he or she was feeling, and whether her office could provide any more information. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland describes Pelosi’s organizing style as “shuttle diplomacy.” The approach may owe something to what Alexandra Pelosi described to me as Nancy’s skill at using “Italian-Catholic-mother guilt.”
In the case of Obamacare, Waxman explained that Pelosi had insisted that each of the three committees whose jurisdiction included health care—Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor—begin the negotiations and amendments process at the committee level using the same baseline piece of legislation. That way Democrats could avoid a repeat of the messy committee-level fight that sank President Bill Clinton’s effort to pass health care reform in the early 1990s.
The speaker at the time was Thomas Foley, a Democrat from Washington state. “Very nice guy, very smart guy,” Waxman said. “His view of being speaker was very different. He was there when Clinton came in and was doing health care. Each of the committees was doing some bill. We were arguing about the policy. His view was: ‘It will all work out. Things will come to the House floor, there’ll be divisions, they’ll be voted on, and at the end of the day, that will be the bill.’ ” In the case of Clintoncare, this was a disaster. “That’s so antithetical to Nancy Pelosi,” Waxman told me. “She’d want to know what that bill was going to be. Was it going to be a good bill, or was it going to be a watered-down missed opportunity?”
Even now, as minority leader, this hands-on approach is still Pelosi’s calling card. It’s constant motion, an endless succession of meetings and phone calls with caucus members on the issues of the day, getting them any information they need on a bill, answering any questions they have. She comes armed to meetings not only with information about the policy but also why a member hesitant to take a tough vote in fact can. “She’ll challenge you,” Democratic Rep. Sam Farr of California says of her leadership style over the years. “When you say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t be with you this time,’ she’ll say, ‘This is a very important vote; you can be with us.’ She’ll know the numbers—what you got elected by, what your fundraising capabilities are. Most people accept what you tell ’em. Not Nancy.”
Pelosi says she prefers to follow the action on the House floor by watching C-SPAN from her couch or desk, usually while writing thank-you letters or signing constituent mail. “I try to watch them on TV more than on the floor because I want to see what the public sees,” she explains. “How many people are in the chamber when we’re watching it? Nobody? Twenty? I want to see that debate, the back and forth, and what the other side is doing.” She is known to text caucus members words of encouragement after seeing them speak on the floor, signing her texts “Nancy.”
I asked Pelosi about how she corrals her fellow Democrats. Had the diversity and unruliness of her caucus made it easier or harder to twist arms? “We don’t twist arms,” she insisted. “We build consensus in our caucus. That’s what we have always done. When we had the majority, that’s what we always did.” She described herself as “a weaver of consensus.” She went on: “Every thread is important to us, meaning what that person brought regionally, philosophically, generationally, gender-wise, whatever, ethnically, to the table so that we would have something that would be sustainable.”
There’s no doubt that Pelosi is quite skilled at being a leader—and observers, allies, and rivals all concede that, if she retired, the void in the caucus and on the campaign trail would be huge. She was the “strongest and most effective speaker of modern times,” according to Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann. Numerous colleagues told me that she is the best vote-counter they’ve seen. She is also a first-rate fundraiser: According to her office, she attended 750 fundraising and campaign events in 115 cities in 2013 and 2014, raising an eye-popping $101 million for congressional Democrats and the DCCC. All of which makes her in many ways uniquely suited to a time in which money rules politics. “I don’t think she’s going anywhere anytime soon,” the source close to Pelosi told me. “She is the only one who can raise the amount of money needed to compete in this era of virtually no campaign-finance regulations.”
But there are other consequences to Pelosi’s continued leadership of the caucus, and not all of them are positive. There is a view among some House members that the longer the current Democratic leadership remains in power, the more it bottles up younger talent below. (“Younger,” in this case, includes members in their 50s and 60s.) This view applies not just to Pelosi, but also to Hoyer (age 76) and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina (age 75). That grumbling extends to several of the highest-ranking Democrats at the committee level, too.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas warned, in an interview with The New York Times Magazine published in May, that younger members would depart if there weren’t leadership changes. “You look at my class, 2012,” he explained. “Tulsi Gabbard, she’s not gonna stay in the House for long—she’ll run for governor or something else. Joe Kennedy, the same. Pat Murphy, the same. And they’re all talented, ambitious, good fundraisers. But I’ve just got to think that when you see that 20-year road to being in a position of consequence, other options start to look a lot more attractive.” (O’Rourke declined an interview request for this story.)
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who served in the House under Pelosi for three terms, echoed O’Rourke’s sentiment, arguing that committee chairmanships would need to open up. “I think there are a lot of House members who leave after six or eight years because they recognize that they’ve got to stay another decade before they have a shot at chairing a committee,” Murphy told me. “I think the rules of the House are going to have to change if you want to keep new members interested and involved.”
I heard these same observations directly relating to Pelosi. “I mean, look, people are appreciative of her long service,” one House Democrat told me. “But at some point, leadership means stepping aside.”
Pelosi often points to sexism in debates over her future. At a press conference in the wake of the 2014 midterms, she asked why reporters hadn’t grilled Mitch McConnell over when he’d retire after he failed three times in a row to win the Senate majority. “It just is interesting, as a woman,” she said, “how many times that question is asked of a woman and how many times that question is never asked of Mitch McConnell.”
But another current House Democrat, also speaking on background, disputed Pelosi’s analysis. “I don’t think that these things about ‘When is she leaving?’ are gender-based,” the member told me. “Maybe there is some of that, but people are saying that about Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, too.”
“You have a Republican leadership,” the member went on, “that with the exception of Boehner—who is still a lot younger than they are—but the rest of them are in their 40s and early 50s. There really is a question about when we’re going to have a generational shift.”
There are signs that Pelosi has thought about succession. In May, the Times Magazine reported that a small group of House Democrats had met in secret after the 2014 midterms to lay the groundwork for replacing Pelosi with Van Hollen, a genial, hyper-disciplined budget wonk who led the DCCC from 2007 to 2010. But those plans collapsed when Van Hollen announced he was running to replace Maryland’s senior senator, Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring next year. The source close to Pelosi sought to cast the Van Hollen group—which included several Pelosi stalwarts, such as Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Donna Edwards of Maryland—as tacitly endorsed by the minority leader. But other House Democrats disputed that.
The obvious choice to succeed Pelosi is Hoyer, the No. 2 in command and a widely liked figure inside the caucus. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in people’s mind that if Nancy decided to leave,” Hoyer told me, “I would run for leader and I would have a good chance of being elected.”
However, based on my reporting, it’s highly likely that, when Pelosi moves on, someone younger would challenge Hoyer for the leader slot. One name I heard was Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the outgoing chairman of the House Democratic caucus. Becerra, if he ran for leader, could draw votes from a number of places, including the California delegation, the Hispanic caucus, and the Progressive caucus. (Through a spokeswoman, Becerra declined to comment on the speculation. “Nancy Pelosi has been a driving force behind many of our nation’s greatest achievements, from affordable health care to Wall Street reform,” Becerra said. “Her energy is unmatched, and no one builds consensus as she does.”)
Here’s a sure bet: Pelosi will do everything in her power before she leaves—whenever that is—to line up a successor and prevent a bloodbath inside the caucus. From her run for DNC chair to her battle with Hoyer for whip, she knows how brutal caucus politics can be. “Politics is tough,” she told me, “but intraparty? Oh, brother.”
I VISITED PELOSI for the last time in late July, at her office in the Capitol. She was irritated that Boehner and the House Republicans were leaving for August recess without pursuing a long-term highway funding bill. She noted that Congress meets for relatively few days in September—because of Labor Day and the Jewish holidays, members will be in session for just 12 days—which left little time to scrape together bills on highway funding, the upcoming debt ceiling, and possibly reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, the latest bête noire for the GOP’s libertarian-conservative wing. She also pondered some of her more long-term goals, such as finding a cure for HIV / AIDS and adding LGBT protections to the Civil Rights Act.
Implicit in much of what Pelosi says about the future is, of course, the possibility of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Even though their biographies and career paths have many parallels, Pelosi and Clinton aren’t especially close, according to people who know the women well. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Speaker Pelosi opted against endorsing Clinton or Obama. But she did wade into the Democratic primary by urging so-called super-delegates to obey the will of their state’s voters when choosing which candidate to back. Pelosi’s admonition benefited Obama, drawing an angry response from Clinton supporters.
The two have long since patched up any misgivings, and now have only glowing things to say about each other. As early as May 2013, Pelosi was stumping for a Clinton presidency. “I pray that Hillary Clinton decides to run for president of the United States,” she said. “Nobody has been first lady and senator and now secretary of State. Putting everything aside that she is a woman, she’d be the best-qualified person that we’ve seen.”
Pelosi believes the fortunes of House Democrats—and her chances of regaining the speakership—rely heavily on Clinton’s success. She told The Hill in January that “the campaign, the joint effort” could allow Democrats to take back the House. That (probably unrealistic) prospect—combined with her considerable appetite and talent for the day-to-day combat of politics—appears to be enough to keep Pelosi going for now. Then again, as she would be the first to point out, Washington is a town full of perishable careers. You just don’t know the date.