House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was already facing a pivotal midterm election Tuesday that could chart the future for both the Democratic Party and her political legacy. But the brutal and politically motivated hammer attack on her husband, Paul, late last month has frozen the conversation in place as colleagues await word on her decision whether to stay in the House or retire from public service.
The California Democrat’s presence has towered over the U.S. Capitol for nearly two decades since she broke the congressional glass ceiling and became the first female House speaker. Regarded by many experts as the most powerful speaker in more than 100 years, she presided over Democrats losing the majority in 2010, then defiantly remained at the helm of the caucus and led Democrats back to power in 2018.
When she reclaimed the gavel, it came with a vague promise to step down at the end of 2022, giving these past four years a sense of urgency to accomplish big legislative priorities while setting in motion a slow-moving contest among junior aspirants to win enough support to succeed her.
Potential successors to her speakership, who have already spent months behind the scenes courting support, have now gone quiet — both out of respect to their caucus leader of two decades and the desire to appear focused on trying to save their razor-thin majority that is on the line Tuesday.
Some veteran lawmakers and aides say the attack on her husband will embolden Pelosi, 82, to remain atop the caucus, even if an increasingly likely political defeat relegates her to minority leader. They contend she would never want to look as if she had been forced out by a fanatic inspired by right-wing conspiracy theories.
Others wonder if the attack provides the personal pull for Pelosi to finally leave Congress and return home to help her husband of nearly 60 years through his “long recovery,” as she has called it. Still, others suggest Pelosi probably made her decision months ago, pointing to capstone moments such as the speaker’s official visit to Taiwan in the face of sharp criticism from Beijing and the U.S. State Department — the type of journey one takes if they know they are leaving the stage.
Pelosi’s Taiwan trip a culmination of decades of challenging China
Those are the conflicting views expressed by a half-dozen current and former lawmakers, along with more than a dozen current and former leadership aides, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Pelosi’s possible future and decision-making calculus.
Those who have spent years around her give simple advice to those asking about her future: have fun guessing, because she doesn’t offer up those details freely.
Pelosi spent almost 10 days out of the spotlight after the attack on her husband, eventually granting an interview with CNN in which she recounted being woken up before dawn by her Capitol Police security detail at her Georgetown condo to learn about the attack on her husband.
In the interview that aired Monday, she didn’t offer any details on whether she would stay in Congress but acknowledged the attack would have an impact. “For me, this is really the hard part because Paul was not the target and he’s the one who is paying the price,” she told Anderson Cooper.
With Paul Pelosi discharged from the hospital late last week, the House speaker returned to Washington on Sunday, where she will remain for election night. A large congressional delegation leaves this week for a global climate change summit in Egypt, and while it’s unclear if Pelosi is joining those lawmakers, some hope for clarity about her decision before lawmakers take off.
House Democrats have not scheduled their leadership elections, with most expecting the secret ballot to take place in December. And no one has officially declared a candidacy for any of the top three slots. But a group of younger Democrats is agitating for Pelosi and her octogenarian compatriots, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), to all step aside.
If Pelosi stands down from leadership, many Democrats expect her to finish the year in charge of the House and possibly return next year to the rank-and-file backdrop as she considers the right moment to resign altogether.
Officially, in mid-September, Pelosi acknowledged she was undecided about her plans, growing so irritated by the congressional press corps’ repeated questions about her future that she rhetorically asked whether she was “speaking a different language” that they did not understand.
“First, we win. Then we decide,” Pelosi said.
‘The strongest speaker in history’
Win or lose the majority, stay or leave next year, Nancy D’Alessandro Pelosi has already left a historic mark on the House, Congress and the nation.
“You could argue she’s been the strongest speaker in history,” Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who clashed with her in the 1990s when he was speaker and she was a rank-and-file Democrat, said in an interview last year.
Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) had the longest tenure as speaker, from before World War II into the Kennedy administration, but he had to deal with powerful Democratic committee chairmen — an inconvenience Pelosi never had as her chairs genuflected to her wishes, Gingrich said. Republicans Joe Cannon (Ill.) and Thomas B. Reed (Maine) were known as towering speakers in the early 20th and late 19th centuries, respectively, but neither had to pass sweeping legislation with just three or four votes to spare, as Pelosi has done the past two years.
“She has shown more capacity to organize and muscle, with really narrow margins, which I would’ve thought impossible,” Gingrich said.
After first claiming the speaker’s gavel in January 2007, Pelosi set a blistering pace for policy wins with a Republican and then Democratic president, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, over the next four years. They raised the minimum wage, rescued a Wall Street collapse, vastly expanded a children’s health insurance program, rewrote health-care laws with the Affordable Care Act and reshaped financial services laws.
The secret to her success has been a combination of East Coast big-city savvy, as the daughter and sister of two Baltimore mayors, and West Coast connections to the thriving money centers that have fueled the liberal takeover of a Democratic Party once rooted in Midwestern manufacturing cities and towns.
But after roughly $50 million in ads run against Democrats in 2010 that included her image, Pelosi became the “face of defeat” in that midterm drubbing, as one ousted incumbent said afterward. Rather than go quietly into the night, as every ousted speaker had done since the early 1950s, Pelosi stuck around and fought to reclaim the majority.
Finally, in 2018, after four consecutive defeats, Pelosi struck gold in the midterm backlash to the Trump presidency and reclaimed the speaker’s gavel with a record-setting level of House diversity. Similar to her first four-year run, she had to navigate two years with a Republican president before Democrats could claim the White House and unified control of Congress.
Pelosi chalked up bipartisan victories that included a new trade deal and massive pandemic relief negotiated with the Trump administration and then led the passage of a roughly $5 trillion domestic policy agenda with President Biden that rivals the first two years of the Obama White House.
Pelosi considers the ACA her single most consequential accomplishment, but her closest allies consider her second term as speaker more tactically impressive for all the chaos of the era: two impeachments of Donald Trump, a global pandemic that killed millions, an insurrection at the Capitol.
But again this year, Pelosi’s Democrats are on the ropes. Another resounding midterm defeat would suggest her legacy will be a dominant force with major policy wins while also being willing to risk handing the majority to Republicans if the payoff was major legislative victories.
“You use power when you get it,” John Lawrence, Pelosi’s chief of staff during her first stint as speaker, recalled her saying during a recent interview.
Just before the 2010 midterms, Lawrence wrote an email to his former boss about expending the “political capital to accomplish great” things, like passing the ACA.
“Our successes included the seeds of our own destruction,” Lawrence wrote to then-Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who was Pelosi’s closest ally early in Congress.
Pelosi saw no other choice. “The alternative — doing little but remaining strong — was never an option for her,” Lawrence wrote in the email, included in his new book, “Arc of Power,” about Pelosi’s first run as speaker.
Pelosi’s domineering force has been her greatest strength, as Gingrich noted, but also sowed the seeds for a quiet rebellion among junior Democrats who have chafed under the firm manner of her leadership.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) arrived after the 2018 Democratic wave along with a bunch of newcomers who had campaigned, in part, on being a new generation of leaders, ready to leverage reforms out of Pelosi in exchange for supporting her continued reign.
When more than 60 incoming Democrats gathered after that election, “she crashed the meeting,” Slotkin recalled. Slotkin watched in awe as Pelosi began rounding up their support, one by one, rather than letting the newcomers coalesce together to issue demands.
“It was my first experience with her as operator,” said Slotkin, who has voted present twice rather than affirmatively in support of Pelosi for speaker in the formal roll call that starts each Congress. While Slotkin and others in the new generation of Democrats have routinely disagreed with Pelosi’s political strategy, they acknowledge there may be no one better at managing the ideological factions within the caucus.
“I mean, if you want to get something through the House, she counts votes exceptionally well,” Slotkin said.
Who comes next?
That grip Pelosi has on the caucus has left many wondering if the next Democratic leader will be much less effective, incapable of unifying the ideologically, regionally, ethnically and generationally diverse caucus.
For 20 years, Hoyer has served as Pelosi’s lieutenant, and sometimes rival, as his base of support came from more moderate factions that have at times balked as Pelosi advanced liberal priorities. Hoyer is the longest-serving No. 2 in congressional leadership to never achieve the top prize, but, at 83, many Democrats say that his time has passed and that an old White man is not the best face for the future.
For the last 17 years, Clyburn has served just behind Pelosi and Hoyer. Four months younger than Pelosi, Clyburn has sometimes joked that he is “the baby” of the leadership trio. But he has sent signals that he is willing to allow a more junior member of the Congressional Black Caucus break the racial barrier for the speakership: Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who has held another top post for four years.
Jeffries, 52, first elected in 2012, won his leadership post in a tough internal election after the 2018 midterms by touting himself as part of the next generation of Democratic leaders.
He has spent the past couple years working assiduously with rank-and-file Democrats, catering to their needs on everything including media requests and establishing a de facto suggestion box to make them feel heard. His two lieutenants, Reps. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), are expected to run respectively for the Nos. 2 and 3 positions in leadership.
Clark joined the House in 2013, Aguilar in 2015. The trio hails from the three largest states in terms of members of the House Democratic caucus, as well as serving in the most influential member caucuses: CBC, Congressional Progressive Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), well-known for his role as impeachment manager for Trump in 2020 and as a member of the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, also has made an unofficial late entry into the leadership contest. His pitch has been his media-savvy presence and his massive fundraising war chest — key skills that the modern speakership requires.
But Schiff’s semipublic overtures gave the other three cover to be even more aggressive in their effort to lock down support, according to senior aides familiar with the private talks. As he tried to sell himself as a staunch acolyte of Pelosi, they felt they could more aggressively court votes to succeed Pelosi and the other leaders before the party elders had actually decided to step aside.
Taking, not asking for, power
Pelosi has, at times, mocked supplicants who have courted her and asked her to essentially anoint them as her heir apparent, often saying no one will ever give away power.
“You have to seize it,” she told political writer Susan Page in the book “Madam Speaker.”
Pelosi knew from her first day in office what powerful post she wanted to claim.
She arrived to the Capitol in 1987 after winning a special election and was soon ushered off to a dinner with that generation’s up-and-coming House Democrats who were demanding more power.
The regular dinner crew included a future White House chief of staff and secretary of Defense (Leon Panetta), a future Senate majority leader (Charles E. Schumer), a future Senate whip (Richard J. Durbin) and several other future committee chairs in the House and Senate.
Meet the woman who will become the first female speaker of the House, Miller said — an anecdote repeated over and over by the dinner participants.
By 2001, Pelosi had soundly defeated Hoyer in a bid to become Democratic whip, and a year later, she bucked her party’s leader, then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), and led the opposition to an Iraq War resolution that he had negotiated with the Bush White House.
It passed, but a majority of House Democrats supported Pelosi’s position and Gephardt resigned his post after the 2002 elections. Pelosi became minority leader, and four years later, she helped guide Democrats to their first majority since 1994.
Only Rayburn, who served as speaker for more than 17 years and four more as minority leader, led a congressional caucus longer than her. By year’s end, Pelosi will have served the fifth-longest stint as speaker.
That tenure has come at a price, both politically and now, since the attack on her husband, personally.
In the last two months of these midterm elections, Republicans spent nearly $56 million on more than 124,000 ads that mentioned her name or showed her image, always in tough, grainy video, according to research by AdImpact, an independent firm.
Democrats have drawn a direct line from the hundreds of millions of dollars in stark anti-Pelosi ads, along with violent imagery about her, to the home invasion and attack on her husband.
Now, she has acknowledged it will impact her decision — yet no one is certain which direction that will go. Back in 2010, when she realized Democrats were about to lose the majority, Pelosi kept a very close-knit circle of advisers about whether she should retire.
When she was deciding what to do, her brother Tommy D’Alessandro Jr. invoked the legendary actress Greta Garbo, who retired in her prime at 35. “Pull a Garbo and get out,” he advised, according to Lawrence’s book.
Miller told her at the time that whatever she decided, it should be quick so as to fend off any challenge and to let others begin their campaigns should she leave. “Time is of the essence,” he said.
Now, as she makes this decision again more than a decade later, the circle is even smaller. Her brother died three years ago. Miller retired eight years ago and is not in regular contact with his old friend.
Pressed about her future in mid-September, she said her focus was proving critics wrong and maintaining the majority.
“Even though there are some among you who belittle my political instincts and the rest, I got us here twice to the majority,” she said, before stumbling over the words that might have given a hint about her future.
“And I don’t intend to — our giving it up,” Pelosi said.
With her political future unclear, Nancy Pelosi stares down another midterm – The Washington Post