Voices: Why Nancy Pelosi was so uniquely effective

Pelosi  (AP1987)
Pelosi (AP1987)

Sam Rayburn may have served longer. Tip O’Neill’s aphorisms, like “all politics is local” are seared into our dialogue. Newt Gingrich turned the art of controlling the House into a bloodsport. But Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi’s mark on America will last longer.

Ever since she picked up the pieces after Democrats’ disastrous 2002 midterm performance, she has reshaped the Democratic Party and the country. She became the first female Speaker of the House. She passed the largest expansion of healthcare at the time, which cost her her majority, and defended it against a Republican repeal. She passed landmark climate legislation that same Congress, watched it die in the Senate, and then passed new legislation to combat climate change twelve years later.

She and only a handful of Democrats opposed the Defense of Marriage Act and stayed in Congress long enough to see the House codify same-sex marriage. And she ensured a mob of Trump-supporting rioters did not obstruct the certification of a presidential election.

With this historic record hanging over her, Pelosi’s floor speech yesterday announcing that she would step aside as speaker felt like an Irish wake.

Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania wiped away tears as she told your reporter she was “crying tears of joy. Joy that this country had her leadership.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has clashed and teamed up with Pelosi in equal measure, described how she had not even graduated high school when the speaker ascended to the gavel, and praised her for supporting LGBTQ+ rights when the cause was deeply unpopular.

What was it that made Pelosi so effective? Her greatest strength was to keep the Democrats together as a monolith, with as few defections as possible. Before her announcement, we caught up with John Lawrence, her former chief of staff who wrote a book about her.

“I always say that she followed the incredible British political philosopher Sir Mick Jagger: You didn’t always get what you wanted, but you got what you needed,” he said. “She knows her members. She knows what policies she can make concessions on, and which she has to hold people’s feet to the fire. And she has the interests of the House as an institution as well as her caucus at stake.”

And as much as Pelosi may regret that embedded in her legacy are Donald Trump’s two impeachments, they are essential inclusions. The same approach she took to caring for the institution shaped her approach to impeachment – it’s notable, for instance, that she rebuffed pushes to impeach George W Bush. “She resisted those because she felt that they could be unnecessarily divisive, and they would potentially jeopardize the legislative objectives, which were the primary goal that she wanted to achieve,” Lawrence said.

Similarly, she only pushed for Trump’s first impeachment, which revolved around his attempt to extort Ukraine’s president into investigating Hunter Biden, as a last resort.

“I think ultimately, the sheer scope of President Trump’s affront to the Constitution... left her no choice,” Lawrence said. “But I have no doubt that it was reluctant on her part, particularly the first impeachment.” But he says she was much less wary of the second impeachment “given the assault on the Capitol and the assault on the electoral process”.

Indeed, one of the most indelible images from the reams of January 6 footage (aside from her saying she wanted to punch Trump) is a clip of the speaker ripping open a Slim Jim while instructing Mike Pence to not tell anyone where he was.

“And her calmness was, I think, important also, that she was able to judge the situation, the nature of the threat, and not overreact in terms of the response, but to methodically identify who needed to do at what time, and really kept her head at a time when a lot of other people were not sure what to do or were panicking,” Lawrence said.

At the same time, he also said it would be a mistake to say that she was a hardcore partisan, adding that she worked with Bush, as well as Republican Speakers Dennis Hastert and John Boehner well.

“I think that she views bipartisanship as a better way to legislate and as something that produces legislation that is more durable,” he said. “But in case after case, she was rebuffed and was told that no matter what concessions you make, Republicans are simply not going to participate in the legislative process.”

But her bipartisan style of politics may be infeasible these days. Exhibit one: while former Republican Speaker John Boehner raised a glass of merlot to her yesterday, Kevin McCarthy wasn’t in the chamber when she spoke.