By Ross Alexander Hutton
At the unveiling of Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait during the final days of her tenure as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, it was former Republican Speaker John Boehner – not Pelosi – who struggled to hold back the tears. “Tell the Speaker how much we admire her” were the words Boehner’s daughters instructed him to share in Statutory Hall and the words which he delivered with such uncharacteristic affection. This was a speech of genuine admiration and respect for a political giant – a rare occurrence in a divided Washington. But it was more than that. It was a speech which recognised the end of an era. While Boehner praised Pelosi’s inspiration for women and girls by breaking the ‘marble ceiling’ not once but twice, Boehner also noted the kind of politics she represented by drawing attention to Pelosi’s ability to disagree but to do so without being disagreeable. In essence, Pelosi’s legacy is derived not only from the achievement of becoming Speaker twice but from her achievements as Speaker. In her own words, Pelosi took up the gavel to “do a job, not keep a job”.
To understand how Pelosi became the shrewdest of the shrewd and the canniest of the canny, it is crucial to realise politics is in her blood. Pelosi grew up in a family which was “staunchly democratic” – the D’Alesandros in Baltimore were what the Kennedys were in Boston. While her father was the Mayor of Baltimore before becoming a representative from Maryland, it was her mother, ‘big Nancy’, who ran her father’s campaign and taught ‘little Nancy’ the ways and means of power. ‘Big Nancy’ was known to keep a ‘favour file’ to record who deserved compensation for allegiance, offering a key lesson to Pelosi at a young age: reward loyalty and punish disloyalty. This early exposure to the ward politics of Baltimore is undoubtably where Pelosi’s unrivalled organising and fundraising skills originate. Learning how to build coalitions amid fractious local politics and how to count votes in order to get results laid the groundwork for Pelosi’s unlikely legislative wins decades later.
Pelosi’s delayed entry into the political arena did not set her back as one might expect. In fact, Pelosi credits bringing up her five children as the ‘best training’ for her political roles of Whip and Speaker – if one needs any persuading of the value mothers bring to the political arena, look no further. The very nature of shifting loyalties amongst her children and continuous efforts to understand each child’s needs in order to gain their cooperation provided the training for Pelosi, as Speaker, to patiently discern the unique interests of each caucus member as well as finding ways to skilfully align their interests with those of the party leadership.
So, how did Pelosi – armed with the skills to become a masterful politician – make the transition from homemaker to House Speaker? Pelosi organised and fundraised until she became one of the most powerful non-presidential fundraisers the Democratic Party has ever seen. Afterall, if one follows the money, power shall be found. While her astute ability to raise money gained her attention in the circles of power in the Democratic Party, Pelosi’s aptitude to obtain results, to get things done and to make things happen are the real reasons she eventually found herself on the House Appropriations Committee as a representative for California. One is not appointed to the Appropriations Committee if they are not proficient at overcoming differing interests and finding compromise. It is, therefore, no surprise Pelosi excelled in the appropriators arena.
As a pragmatic, determined and patient politician, Pelosi slowly but surely persuaded her colleagues to elect her to leadership. When becoming speaker in 2007, she paved the way for women to hold high office. However, holding the gavel is second order to actually using it. And use it she did. At the crux of Pelosi’s legacy is her abiding belief that politics is a vehicle to advance policy, not a vehicle to advance one’s career. Pelosi’s obsession with power is not with its acquisition but with how it is wielded – in stark contrast to her successor as Speaker.
Considering Kevin McCarthy required 15 votes to become Speaker while it took Pelosi one vote (in both Speaker elections), it is clear Pelosi’s successor has nowhere near the level of her political skill. Clearly McCarthy has still to learn Pelosi’s golden rule: if you don’t have the votes, you don’t go to the floor. Just like Boehner and Ryan, McCarthy simply cannot create the unity of purpose Pelosi is capable of without ceding power. To be Speaker in name only is not to be Speaker at all. While Pelosi is no great orator, her effectiveness in building coalitions without losing authority is unrivalled in modern times. As for Pelosi’s democratic successor, Representative Hakeem Jefferies? Jefferies sure has some steely stilettos to fill.
Without Pelosi’s quintessential political talent in either party to lead their increasingly divided caucuses, governing for either party is set to be increasingly more difficult. While the House has always been partisan as it tends to be more representative of the country, the shift in partisanship is important even if it is not as profound as in the Senate. For Republicans, the ‘Ultra-Maga’ republicans will continue to make McCarthy’s speakership a nightmare as they effectively hold him hostage. It will be almost impossible for McCarthy to do the job of speaker as in order to become Speaker he has yielded his ability to negotiate and make deals through the major concessions made to the Freedom Caucus. As a result, chaos and dysfunction should be expected to become the norm rather than governing.
For Jefferies, the ‘Squad’ will test his abilities to unite his caucus to the same success as his predecessor. Painted as a ‘San Francisco liberal’, Pelosi came to congress as a “voice to be heard” with similar aims as Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) to challenge the establishment. But the similarity ends here. While AOC came to congress to be ‘pure’, to disrupt and stand up for progressive causes, Pelosi came to congress to legislate. As a pragmatic progressive, Pelosi understands the key lesson of power: compromise is essential to making real, lasting progress. This tension between young, radical critics and experienced pragmatics is set to continue in the Democratic caucus. As a down-to-business and no-nonsense leader, Pelosi successfully kept her caucus in line but even she cannot withstand the underlying political current. Without leadership powerful enough to withstand internal squabbling and wise enough to recognise that the perfect bill should not be the enemy of a good bill, the kind of politics Pelosi practised will now be confined to the history books.
This is not a recent observation. It has been plainly obvious for years. Just take the Affordable Care Act. Without Pelosi, there is not ACA. The story goes as follows. Obama wanted to reach a bi-partisan agreement on healthcare reform to honour his election commitment of reaching across the aisle. Pelosi, having learned from the failure of Boehner to secure enough Republican votes to pass the TARP legislation at the height of the financial crisis, grew ever more frustrated with Obama’s persistent attempts to persuade Republicans to get on board. When the Democrats lost their supermajority in the Senate, the only way for ACA to be passed was for the House to accept the Senate bill and amend through budget reconciliation. Pundits and democratic party insiders alike wrote off any chance of success in passing healthcare reform. Ever the realist and dealmaker, Pelosi set to work on understanding how to get each of her reluctant members to yes. No other leader could have painstakingly assembled the majority needed: Pelosi was the right leader, at the right time.
Even with razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate before the 2022 Midterm Elections, Speaker Pelosi, President Biden and Leader Schumer learned the lessons from the battle to pass the healthcare reform. They understood the necessity of ensuring party discipline and unity in order to utilise their trifecta of power. Passing the Inflation Reduction Act which will bring down healthcare costs for American families, the Chips and Science Act which invests in American competitiveness and the Respect for Marriage Act which protects same-sex and interracial marriages in federal law, among a flurry of other legislative achievements during her final term in the Speakers office is the finale only she could write for her own trailblazing political career. Don’t expect to see as productive a legislative session of Congress again any time soon.
Pelosi leaves office not only with a stellar legislative record but as strong political leader in her own right. Whether it be standing up to President Clinton on human rights abuses in China or rallying her party against President Bush on the Iraq War or unashamedly instructing President Obama to ‘go big’ on healthcare or fearlessly confronting President Trump in the Cabinet Room on his addiction to spreading misinformation, Speaker Pelosi always knew the value and strength she brought to the political arena. In her own words, ‘you take a punch and throw a punch, for the children’.
As a result of Nancy Pelosi’s focus on not being the last female Speaker, there will – thankfully – be more female speakers. Indeed, if there is anything to learn from Pelosi’s career it is that women know how to use power – and use it well. After all, Nancy Pelosi ‘did everything that Fred Astair did, she just did it backwards and in high heels’. We can only hope for more homemakers to follow Pelosi’s footsteps to House Speaker. Of course, there is a rather ugly flipside to Pelosi’s dominance in Washington: the unrelenting, vicious attacks from her opponents. Yet, in keeping with her unbreakable strength, Pelosi never allows the vile abuse to dash her determination to do her job. Consistent with her character, whenever pressed on how she copes with the threats of violence to her and her family, Pelosi recounts an African saying: “When one day I die and happily go to meet my maker … he will say to me, ‘Show me your wounds.’ And if I have no wounds to show him, he will say, ‘Was nothing worth fighting for? I’m proud of my wounds.” Madam Speaker, we shall not see your like again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image: The New York Times