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The Underrated Nancy Pelosi, and the End of an Era

by R. Anthony Arnold
November 2022

There’s a bit of risk in assuming that a person who hasn’t officially confirmed their exit from the stage is, in fact, stepping aside. But events over the last few years, and even perhaps the last few weeks, with the attack of her husband, have all been pointing in a similar direction.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been coy in interviews, and mostly dismissive of attempts to pin her down, but she’s also maintained that she would abide by the terms of a 2018 proposal, which would have required her to step down by the end of 2022.

Assuming she doesn’t change her mind, and the democrats hold on to their slim majority in the House, that means this year is the final go. What does that mean for Democrats? More importantly, what should we make of her?

Allow me to lay my cards on the table.

I like Nancy Pelosi. Always have. I recognize that saying this isn’t likely to win me any fans among more progressive types, and is almost certain to mark me as an enemy for anyone who identifies as conservative, but I mean it sincerely.

Pelosi is an old-school politician. She shows up to work, and she does the job. She doesn’t pose for the cameras, she’s not obsessed with her social media profile, and she’s not the kind of politician who makes big empty speeches. She does what she’s supposed to do – and she’s always been very good at it.

It’s easy to forget now, because she’s been a fixture of Washington for quite a while now, but there was a time when she was the firebrand San Francisco progressive, the vanguard of a new era of left leaning politics who scared the hell out of moderate Democrats. When she rose to become Speaker in 2006, the first woman to do so, people were convinced that her radicalness would not only doom her, but would drag the rest of the Democrat party down with her.

That’s not what happened.

What happened is that Pelosi immediately began displaying what would become a recurring theme throughout her first tenure. Her innate skill at finding deals, and counting votes.

It’s important to place those skills into context. Commonly, we think of politics as something that plays out in big, grand ways. High profile events. High stakes showdowns. There’s a macho-ness, and relatedly a kind of sexism, that flows through our discourse in the way that we measure the success of a politician. We admire, elevate, and exalt politicians who embody traits most commonly associated with masculinity.

Toughness. Standing your ground. Fighting. The political theater itself is, in the eyes of a man’s man like Theodore Roosevelt, an arena populated by gladiators who engage in verbal, philosophical, and perhaps even physical combat, all of which comes with the suggestion, if not the outright acknowledgement, that politics is a man’s place; because men are warriors, and politics is war without bloodshed.

So, it’s into this environment in 2006, a time of literal war, the newly chosen Speaker Pelosi steps. A woman playing a man’s game, and one who was perhaps expected to play it poorly.

Instead of trying to prove that she was “one of the boys,” she played a different game entirely. She dealt with President George Bush, winning concessions where possible. She laid the groundwork for something bolder, while showing that she was still willing to take deals where they could be found. She displayed a willingness to compromise, a dirty word that carries with it something soft, but a necessary part of a functioning democracy.

When Senator Obama became President Obama, she proved that behind the scenes was where her best work was done; and she proved that beneath the pant suits lay steel.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has become an accepted part of our nation now, as Obama predicted it would. You don’t really hear many people running on a platform of “repeal Obamacare” anymore. But, there was a time where that wasn’t so certain.

At its lowest moment, the ACA almost fell apart entirely. Rahm Emmanuel, whom you may know from his tenure as Mayor in Chicago, was Chief of Staff for Obama at the time. The ACA, which was supposed to be the signature achievement for the new President, was, at this time, on life support.

Rahm, being the pragmatist that he was known to be, advised breaking the bill into something smaller, something more manageable. He wasn’t alone in this assessment. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid started getting cold feet, followed by Senator, and current Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The White House itself started waffling in their messaging.

The revised proposal was a smaller bill, one that would focus on providing healthcare for minors. A fine goal, but a much smaller one than what the ACA was supposed to be. Pelosi dubbed it “kiddie care,” and ensured that the bill coming from the House, and the one that eventually passed the Senate, wouldn’t be some tiny little thing, shrunken down by political cowardice or an obsession over which way the polls leaned.

Then, when the time came to vote on the bill, a vote that almost certainly cost Democrats some seats in the 2010 midterms, she made sure that her side of the aisle didn’t step out of line.

If this version of events doesn’t quite square with the annoyingly President focused view we have of politics, the one where “Great Men” lead the charge, there’s a reason for that. It’s because that view of things, which intentionally sidelines the other major players, is wrong. Politics is cooperative, collaborative, and relationship oriented. Things are accomplished not by the powerful or the mighty, but by the competent.

Politics is like chess. It’s true that Presidents may be the Kings and the one piece on which everyone focuses. But, the most powerful piece on the board is the Queen. A truly deft player knows that you can make your opponent's life hell by understanding the proper usage of Bishops, Knights, Rooks, and even Pawns. Every piece, no matter how seemingly insignificant, matters to the overall strategy. Every piece has a vital role to play in victory.

Pelosi has always understood that. Unlike many people in politics, she’s, at least publicly, never aspired to something greater than the position of Speaker. She’s undoubtedly ambitious, as all serious politicians must be, but her desires to be great have never run ahead of her desire to be effective.

This too makes her unpopular in our current climate.

We love people who loudly talk about their future glory. And we love to prop up people, even if they haven’t done much to warrant the attention.

Take Amanda Gorman for instance. She’s the young woman who wrote and movingly recited poetry at Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021. And almost immediately afterwards people began speculating about her future presidency.

To be clear, this is no fault of her own. She’s more talented at writing than I am, and it’s not particularly close.

But, this desire for us to project our hopes onto somebody still so young and unformed is absurd. We fantasize about President Jon Stewart, or Dwayne Johnson. We speculate about Oprah Winfrey. We elect Donald Trump. This is the political world we’ve chosen to build, one where the loudest voice is the one most rewarded, and the one most sought after.

A politician like Pelosi, who has never been good at that part of the game, has little to offer us, now. Her skills, which only succeeded at making her good at the job she was chosen to do, aren’t enough now. We demand that our politicians inspire us, move us, entertain us. And of all the things that Pelosi has done, entertaining the people has never been one of them.

Like all people who participate in politics for long enough at the highest levels, her legacy is complicated. To some, like me, she’s a shining example of the kind of politics that’s less focused on appearances, and more focused on results. To others, she’s the last remaining fossil from an era that we would do well to leave behind.

In truth, she’s a little of both. She is one of the last of her kind, and politics is certainly no longer fit for someone like her. But whether that’s good or not remains to be seen. In part due to her own stubbornness, Democrats are unprepared to replace her. Her choice to avoid grooming a successor was a mistake. One that will have to be reckoned with in the near future.

But beyond that there’s a larger question still. Can politics actually function without people like her?

Managing a caucus is like herding cats. You need only look at the difficulties undermining politics in the United Kingdom to realize that politicians, like everybody else, can be petty, difficult, and prone to self-serving tantrums. Convincing a group of them, each with their own concerns, to band together in service of a greater good is an incredibly hard thing to do.

It requires understanding the machine of politics in a way that is typically gained from experience struggling with it. It requires a temperament that doesn’t shy away from conceding to others, and doesn’t take it personally when things don’t go its way. It requires being a bit of a bully, but never so much so that it turns others against you. And it requires skin thick enough that when people grow to inevitably despise you, you won’t collapse.

For years now, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has provided a reliable, and controversial, anchor for not just House Democrats, but Democrats as a whole. But her time in the spotlight is coming to an end. Who, if anybody, is ready to take her place?