As Democrats lose House, Nancy Pelosi's historic reign as speaker ends

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:54 AM

Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American politics, lost her job as speaker of the House on Tuesday as voters delivered a sharp rebuke to the party she helped lead.

Her steely manner and the progressive policies she championed made her a favorite target for resurgent Republicans nationwide. Pelosi's face appeared in more GOP attack ads than any other Democrat, including President Obama.

Pelosi had seized upon a rare Democratic alignment across government to orchestrate deals that she saw as historic and remarkable, but which seemed intrusive and ideological to a broadening swath of the U.S. electorate.

In the end, it cost her the powerful gavel.

All day Tuesday, Pelosi was relentlessly upbeat. She appeared before cameras with three young grandchildren and told reporters: "We're on pace to maintain the majority."

Even in confidence, friends said, Pelosi never betrayed any doubt. "I have never seen that moment," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). "She's never let up. She's never given up the faith."

And as she stood before a a few hundred supporters Tuesday night, as some races were being called and placed her job in jeopardy, she gave no indication that she really believed the House was about to shift in a devastating voter repudiation of her leadership.

"We are not going back to the failed policies of the past. We are fighting for the middle class," Pelosi, in a white pantsuit and silver pearls, said with a constant smile.

She walked off stage to the strains of Tina Turner ("You're simply the best . . .") after a four-minute speech, in which she did not declare that her party would retain the majority. Perhaps she simply forgot. Or perhaps she knew what the night would bring.

"The speaker has said, as long as I've known her, in politics and certainly in Washington, D.C., everything is perishable," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a confidant.

In the end, Pelosi was a speaker who couldn't speak up for herself. In the final run-up to a midterm election that she knew could be a dramatic rebuke, Pelosi rarely campaigned in public. She shuttled between private fundraisers and then hunkered down with strategists in Washington, largely out of sight of an angry and angsty American electorate - except in the barrage of ads airing every day all across the nation.

But Pelosi was always in the fight. She rose early in the mornings to study polls and turnout projections. She helped decide which Democrats got national party funding and which were cut short. She knew how to appeal to donors, to encourage candidates, to say difficult things to difficult people.

"You don't get to predict what are the intervening events," Miller said, echoing what Pelosi routinely tells her caucus. "You have to go when you can go. It's about taking the opportunities that are presented to you. That's her success."

Within the marble-floored confines of the Capitol, she led the party's efforts to overhaul the health-care system, increase the minimum wage, reform the regulation of Wall Street firms and stimulate the economy.

"She's been a remarkably effective and influential speaker, in many respects towering over her predecessors in recent decades - in helping to produce a remarkably productive legislative record, of managing in a time of deep partisan polarization and unified Republican opposition to the president's initiatives," said Thomas A. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

But the speaker also led the push for a cap-and-trade energy bill, which failed in the Senate and cost reelection for several House Democrats from moderate districts who had voted for the bill.

And before the American people whose votes Tuesday proved a decisive blow, Pelosi allowed her enemies to define her. In her San Francisco district, she is revered and faced only token opposition. But across the country, Pelosi was vilified as a dangerous liberal, on television and in speeches - by Republicans, sure, but also by some moderate Democrats who for purposes of their own survival ran away from her.

American voters view her unfavorably by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. She became such a lightning rod that she crisscrossed the country raising money for endangered incumbents but campaigned publicly with only one or two during the fall sprint.

Michael S. Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, campaigned coast to coast this fall in a red bus emblazoned with the slogan, "Fire Pelosi." At election night rally in downtown Washington, Steele declared: "We're about to do the one thing the American people want done and that is to fire Pelosi."

Rep. John A. Yarmuth (D-Ky.) leapt to Pelosi's defense in his victory speech. "I almost wish there were another podium here tonight, because I feel like Nancy Pelosi has been in this campaign the whole time," he reportedly said. "And Nancy ought to take a victory lap with me. And maybe President Obama as well. The disservice and disrespect that has been leveled on them has been so outrageous and so unjustified that it makes me really fear for this country."

While House Republican Leader John Boehner had been seen as an asset for some GOP candidates - he barnstormed his home state of Ohio and other battlegrounds in recent weeks - Pelosi has been absent from the campaign trail except on behalf of her party's safest members.

Yet she had been a powerful force behind the scenes. She raised $64.8 million for candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during this two-year cycle, aides said. She has appeared at 228 political events in some 25 states and the territory of Puerto Rico, and remains a big draw among the Democratic faithful.

Last week in San Francisco, Pelosi addressed a group of about 800 supporters, mostly women. She was not the main attraction - that honor went to First Lady Michelle Obama - but was greeted in the Fairmont Hotel ballroom like a hero.

"She received a standing ovation," said Woolsey, who was in attendance. "They know that when the White House went wobbly after the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, it was Nancy that presented the health-care bill, and they know it, they appreciate it and they love her."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company