When Democrats achieved an improbable victory last week, with a special-election upset in a Trumpy part of Pennsylvania, the moment called for some bashing of Nancy Pelosi. Such outbreaks happen every so often, like political chicken pox, and this time it was because Democrat Conor Lamb, winner of that special election, had viewed Pelosi as enough of an albatross to feel compelled to call for “new leadership.” This triggered a fresh round of Pelosi-must-go commentary, which in turn prompted a burst of no-she-shouldn’t commentary. In this world of Pelosiology, we have the ground-level take arguing that Pelosi is bad news and has to go. Then we have the intermediate take countering that she's actually very good and must stay. Then we have the advanced take positing that she's actually brilliant and shouldn’t have to go—but might have to anyway. To outdo all of these, I intend to argue that Pelosi, beyond good or bad, dwells in a state of quantum superposition.
But that’s for my magnum opus. For now, I’ll simply go intermediate and submit that Nancy Pelosi, for all her flaws, should stay in charge and become speaker if (more likely when) the House flips, starting in January of 2019. I admit I could have argued the opposite case, but this stance comes with more wokeness points, plus my quarter came up heads. Also, Pelosi really does get undervalued.
Let’s first summarize the case against Pelosi, which, it must be admitted, grows longer. Pelosi’s strength has never been as a figurehead or spokesperson. Back in 2006, when Pelosi was just hoping to become House speaker one day, Jacob Weisberg was complaining in Slate that, for Pelosi, “a five-minute interview is usually sufficient to exhaust her knowledge on any subject,” causing her to “flop around like a fish.” And she was always liberal with gaffes. Recently, her handling of tricky issues seems to have gotten worse, both on substance and pronouncement. On why the “Patriot Prayer” group should be denied a demonstration permit by the National Park Service: “The Constitution does not say that a person can yell 'wolf' in a crowded theater.” On how she felt about Michigan Democrat John Conyers having settled multiple sexual harassments from former staffers: “Just because someone is accused—and is it one accusation, is it two? John Conyers is an icon in our country.” After Democrats lost a showdown over extending protections for people brought illegally to the United States as minors—calculating that voters didn’t have their backs—Pelosi gave an eight-hour protest speech, exactly the sort of thing red-state Democrats needed least.
It doesn’t help that Pelosi is rich, that she’s from San Francisco, or that the public mood has turned sharply populist, souring on (among other things) the Bay Area and big tech. Nor does it help that she soon turns 78. Many younger Democrats are openly raring to get rid of Pelosi. They argue that Pelosi epitomizes an old guard that ought to make room for clued-in up-and-comers, or non-white ones. But let’s go to the defense. Just as a C.E.O. is hired to run a company, a party leader is hired to lead a party. If that person is good at managing media perceptions, great, but it’s not the main job. Pelosi’s job is to keep her caucus united and effective, and she does it well. Granted, to observe that Pelosi is a skilled tactician has become one of those clichés outside the realm of strict truth or falsity, à la “Obama’s stimulus plan needed to be at least 50 percent bigger.” People say it to sound astute. But the evidence in this case is quite strong. Already in 2005, when becoming House speaker was still a hope rather than a reality, Pelosi played a central role in torpedoing efforts by George W. Bush to try partially privatizing Social Security. When fellow Democrats asked her when she might release a competing plan of her own, her reliable answer, according to one aide, was “Never. Does never work for you?” It worked. Bush’s effort was a fiasco.
When Pelosi became speaker of the House and, after that, gained the support of a Democratic White House, she became far more effective still. During the years 2009 and 2010, as The Atlantic’s Andy Kroll writes, “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).” Her caucus had a cohesion that would have been the envy of her Republican successor, John Boehner, who struggled to keep his team together and eventually gave up his post, all but defeated.
One clue to Pelosi’s success has been that she’s patient about herding her cats. “You build your consensus in your caucus, and when you’re ready, you set the date to bring it to the floor,” she has explained, drawing a contrast between Democrats and Republicans. “This isn’t something where we ever go in and say: Here’s the bill, now we need you to vote for it the day after tomorrow. That isn’t the Democratic Party. Some people criticize us for being such a Democratic Party, but that’s who we are.” Building up that consensus is part of the handiwork that the public doesn't see. Only few can manage it, and none without decades of experience.
If Pelosi is tarred with the brush of rich donors, she’s also gilded with their donations. Pelosi attracts campaign cash the way United Airlines attracts customer complaints. She often points to her own cash magnetism with—if not tasteful, at least understandable—satisfaction. “I’m the biggest fundraiser in the country,” she told The New York Times last summer. And she keeps shaking the trees. This past weekend, she was fundraising at a rodeo in Houston. As much as Democrats like to distance themselves from Pelosi’s image, they take a notably chummier approach to her cash.
All of this makes Pelosi easy to fault but hard to replace. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who has challenged Pelosi for leadership roles in the past, is a 78-year-old establishment type with cozy K-Street relationships. That’s an image improvement? As for other contenders, many of the Democrats pushing hardest for “fresh blood” are indeed fresher-blooded but decidedly unfresh in thinking or in anything else. Even Democrats who want to get rid of Pelosi often change their mind when they have considered replacements. That’s one reason that Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for her position after the election of 2016, was solidly defeated, 134–63.
Even those who claim that having a new figurehead at the head of the Democratic party would improve its chances must realize that, before long, the new figurehead will acquire almost as much baggage as Nancy Pelosi has. And what, in the meantime, stops Republicans from running nasty campaign ads linking Democratic candidates to Nancy Pelosi, whether she is still speaker or not? She’s not retiring altogether, and she’s still a big name.
Democrats have many problems. We needn’t review them. But all the incoming evidence suggests that they’ll retake the House in November, no matter who’s in charge. After that, it’s all about who fights best in the trenches for the next two years. Do you go with a new general, or do you go with the one who helped you achieve victories in the past? General Pelosi is familiar and uninspiring and often intolerable, but she’s effective. It’s not a bad trade.