PORTLAND, Ore. — Even as the last of the light drained out of the day during a seated dinner in an honest-to-God forest glade, Nancy Pelosi kept doling out anecdotes and answers a la tartare to donors who weren’t ready for the evening to end.
On Republicans and Medicare cuts: “Do you want granny in the den with her flexible bed? And I am a granny, so I can say that.”
And on message discipline: “I think the president is doing a good job now, in more fighting form. But if I tell my members, ‘The message is, the glass of water is on the table,’’’ she said, lifting a goblet, then they will reliably march forth with an array of exciting variations on that theme. Whereas if Boehner gave 10 Republicans that same direction, “All 10 would say the glass of water is on the table! We are, after all, the Democratic Party.”
It’s often been noted that Pelosi is no Barack Obama when it comes to the kind of oratory that can make vast crowds feel they’ve never been loved before. But also unlike the president, she revels in the schmoozy, small-room art of ‘donor maintenance.’
She came up doing it, as a party chairman in California, and is every bit the reigning master in this corner of the political jungle that Bill Clinton was at retail politics or George W. Bush was, initially anyway, at charming the reporters who covered him. She’s raised more than $300 million for her party over the last decade, and attended some 450 fundraisers in the last year.
Aides nearly half a century Pelosi’s junior might have been tired, hungry and beset by mosquitoes, but in three days of fundraisers from coast to coast, the 72-year-old in the purple suede stilettos — kicked off in the grass at one point, but only because she was sinking into soft ground — showed no grimace, sigh or sign of flagging. Just this month, she’s done 62 such events, in eight states and a territory, and raised $6.8 million as part of the “Drive for 25’’ effort to win the number of congressional seats Democrats would have to net to take back the House of Representatives.
“You give me hope!’’ a woman told her in Boulder, Colo., where Pelosi had just spoken poolside in a light rain, remembering to thank a recent widow for coming out anyway and incorporating the names of children she’d just met into her remarks. Few know the choir they’re preaching to so thoroughly, and it shows. Another Boulder donor, Marcia Barber, burst into tears as she shook Pelosi’s hand. “I’m so concerned about the direction of the country — the dishonesty, the disenfranchisement, the money that’s being spent — and it moved me to meet her because she represents the direction the country should be going,” Barber said later.
“When you’re trying to raise important money, part of our success is the intimacy’’ of these events, she tells me in a long interview at the end of a typically long day. Was she showing off her stamina, I wondered, or just too tired to get up?
Either way, she wasn’t sticking to talking points: “Let’s face it,’’ she said as we were discussing Missouri Republican Todd Akin’s noxious remark about “legitimate rape.’’ “The Republicans have had the House, Senate and White House any number of times; they could have overturned Roe and they didn’t.’’ True enough, though I’m shocked to hear her say it.
Earlier in the day, she’d mentioned girlfriends she’d grown up with who vote Republican and, according to her, don’t want to hear anything that might force them to rethink that: “People care more about their tax cuts than women’s health — and by ‘people,’ I mean Republican suburban women.”
Oh yes, she says when I ask about her Republican friends, “Tax cuts are the biggest driving force’’ for many voters, and some of her colleagues across the aisle “really need a lesson in the birds and the bees.”
All of which saddens her, she says, even though “we’ll have more opportunity now, because of [Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick Paul] Ryan,’’ who like Akin opposes abortion even for rape victims. Enough opportunity to take back the House, where handicappers are expecting her party to net closer to six or eight seats than the 25 she’d need to get back the gavel?
“My expectations are always grander than other people’s,’’ she says, smiling. “But I count districts to go to sleep at night,’’ instead of counting sheep, and “I’m brutally honest.’’ Her count the previous evening?
She isn’t giving that up, but says reports from the trenches have been unusually upbeat since Ryan was chosen, even from the “real crepe hangers’’ who seem to delight in delivering gloomy news.
“We have 75 prospects’’ — House seats Democrats have a shot at winning. And why some of those candidates insist on describing their situations as dire puzzles her. “If you’re describing it in such a miserable way because you think I’ll put more’’ money or effort into the race, she says, think again. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”
Does she love fundraising as much as she seems to? “I like it,’’ she said, but “I wish it weren’t so urgent.”
Everywhere, her biggest applause line is the one about how Democrats have to win enough seats to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the unlimited corporate donations made possible by Citizens United. In other words, as she says at a fundraiser for young Joe Kennedy III at his grandmother Ethel Kennedy’s home in Hyannis Port, “You have to give us money so we win and don’t have to ask you for money.”
(Also at that stop, she brought the house down twice, once by asking her husband to remind her who the basketball player was they’d had dinner with here at Ethel’s that time — oh, Larry Bird — and again with the tale of how her father, Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro, had told JFK that though many Marylanders were “raging for Nixon, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it; you’ll have a good count in Baltimore City.’ And [JFK] said, ‘Tommy, we want better than a good count.’ That didn’t really happen, but it’s part of the myth.”)
It’s no myth, though, that Nancy Pelosi is selling: “You have to believe in what you’re out there to do,’’ she tells me, or no one else will. And in the end, the most important piece of advice she gives her candidates may be this one: “Just win, baby.”
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.