A record of results
Nancy Pelosi has been one of the more consequential politicians in American history. As she leaves her party’s House leadership after years in the spotlight, we should take this moment to recognize the scale of her accomplishments.
In the tumult of the present, it is sometimes challenging to see a bigger picture. As we look back at history, however, we can see that much of the cacophony that preoccupied those living through the eras of the past dissipates. This perspective allows us to understand broader trends and the people who shaped the course of events. One suspects that those in the future trying to make sense of our times will reserve a place of prominence for Pelosi.
We can start with her effectiveness in leading a caucus that has been notorious for its fractiousness. Both as speaker and House minority leader, Pelosi was able to balance the centrifugal forces that would have overwhelmed lesser politicians. She understood the breadth and limits of her power. And more often than not, she was able to play the hand the voters had given her to impressive effect.
Her tenure has been historic. In 2007, she became the first woman speaker of the House. And after the Democrats lost the chamber four years later, she managed her party in the minority until returning to speaker again in 2019. Her pioneering status was clearly a source of pride for Pelosi, but she didn’t stand around admiring her own role in history. For her, achieving the speaker’s gavel was about maximizing the legislation her party could pass with the votes she could wrangle
Most of the country had given up Obamacare for dead after the 2010 special election of Republican Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat. But Pelosi found a way to keep the long-held Democratic dream of expanding health care alive. She willed it into law using every lever of power she could muster, even though she knew it would hurt her party at the ballot box in the subsequent midterms.
Pelosi believed being entrusted with power was more about what you did with it than about keeping it. In intensive legislative sessions in the first two years of the Obama presidency and later with President Biden, she was able to pass a slate of bills that will shape this nation for decades to come. At the end of the George W. Bush administration, she understood the gravity of the financial debacle and passed an unpopular bailout of the banks to keep our economy from complete collapse. During the Trump administration, she stood as a foil to a chief executive out of control.
Pelosi’s pragmatic leadership and eagerness to protect vulnerable members of her caucus, especially in more conservative districts, often led to criticism from the progressive wing of her party that she was too cautious. Many felt she could have pushed for more progressive measures and that the House could have provided greater oversight of the Trump White House. One wonders how future historians will evaluate her balancing acts.
Of course the greatest vitriol for Pelosi has come from the other side of the aisle. She has been consistently demonized by the political right, who have turned her into a caricature upon whom they rained down opprobrium with relentless glee. In fevered segments on Fox News and political attack ads, Pelosi has been depicted as a radical socialist from that modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, San Francisco.
She (and make no mistake — Pelosi’s gender underpinned the attacks she endured) became a useful shorthand for what her political enemies railed as the antithesis of “real America.” It is not surprising that the violent insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were hunting for her. Sadly, her husband was recently badly injured by an assailant who broke into their home after being influenced by this poisonous rhetoric.
That Pelosi was actually an unusually effective politician who occupied the political center of her party and whose actions belied the histrionic characterizations of her Republican opponents probably only fed the bullying. Just as the taunts on schoolyards are often fueled by insecurity, one has a sense that many Republicans were jealous of Pelosi’s political acumen. That she was able to so effectively push a broad Democratic agenda and stymie Republicans on multiple fronts could predictably propel a hatred born from their impotence and frustration.
While presidents sweep into office with a national vote, our system of government allows for individuals to rise to significant power in the legislative branch despite representing a relatively small sliver of our country’s geography. There are no term limits. And the sway of control in Congress means members can find themselves in both the majority and minority, sometimes multiple times, over the course of their tenure in office. And that was the case with Pelosi.
Few have understood the workings of Congress and how to maximize them for the benefit of their agenda more than Pelosi. Nobody outworked her, nobody out-toughed her, and few could match her intellect. Contrary to the claims of her critics, she also understood America well, especially the needs of the members of her caucus who hailed from a diversity of districts. She was able to balance the opportunity of the moment with the needs of the future.
Being the first woman to serve as speaker of the House would alone have made Pelosi a historic figure. But in the end, it is for all the reasons that Pelosi was vilified that she will be remembered as such a consequential leader who shaped her political era. Generations to come will live in the country she helped forge through the force of her will and transformative political skill.
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