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Opinion Nancy Pelosi was the most consequential speaker of our time

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivers remarks on the House floor on Thursday. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has never really been the “San Francisco limousine liberal” of her critics’ imagination. Nancy D’Alesandro is still the daughter of a ward-heeling, old-school Baltimore mayor who taught her to practice politics by counting votes and twisting arms. Along with thick skin and a wicked sense of humor, these skills helped make Pelosi by far the most consequential speaker of our time.

Her decision to step aside, at 82, gives the Democratic Party the opportunity to let a new generation of leadership emerge. Some would say it’s past time. But it is hard to imagine anyone but Pelosi having kept House Democrats so united over the past two tumultuous decades — or, more recently, leading them to such a surprisingly good showing in the midterm elections. And whatever a rising generation of Democrats makes of Pelosi’s positions, her successors would be wise to emulate her way of doing business.

Pelosi made history in 2007 when she became the first woman to occupy our government’s third-highest post. It was electrifying to see her at that year’s State of the Union address, as President George W. Bush turned to applaud the first “Madam Speaker.” Well aware of her historic status, Pelosi regularly wore suffragette white at important moments in the years that followed.

But the speakership is more than a symbol. Later that year, Pelosi gave an early demonstration of her great skill. Bush needed an appropriation to fund the continuing occupation of Iraq, but House Democrats were by then almost unanimous in their opposition to the war. Knowing that it was unthinkable to leave U.S. troops without the resources they needed, Pelosi orchestrated a series of votes that let her members denounce the war and insist it be brought to an end — but that also, in the end, gave Bush the money he needed.

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Her legislative triumphs, spanning four presidencies, are monumental. They begin with the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s most important achievement. Pelosi had to bring along a caucus that wanted more comprehensive legislation that would cover all uninsured Americans rather than just many of them. She persuaded House Democrats to accept the best possible bill that the Senate would also pass, rather than demand ideal legislation that had no chance of becoming law.

She got the House to pass the $787 billion 2008 stimulus bill; the Dodd-Frank legislation reforming Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act attacking pay discrimination against women; and the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that discriminated against LGBTQ service members.

Last year, under President Biden — and working with the slimmest of majorities — Pelosi shepherded through the House a $1.9 trillion covid-19 relief package, a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill that had been talked about for more than a decade; and the Inflation Reduction Act, which made the biggest investment in the nation’s history in the fight against climate change.

If Pelosi was occasionally theatrical, as she was when she ripped up her copy of President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, she knew the power of restraint. She firmly resisted the idea of impeaching Trump, however popular it might have been to do so, until, following his attempt to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for personal political gain, she felt the House had no choice.

Pelosi didn’t get all of this done through soaring rhetoric or dazzling charisma; in front of television cameras, she often came off as brittle. Her secret weapons were fierce intelligence, attention to detail and ceaseless hard work.

I once asked her to describe her method, and just hearing the answer made me exhausted. Pelosi would meet regularly with the House caucuses. She was a relentless and prodigious fundraiser — which meant that many members owed their seats to her. I asked whether she occasionally gave individual members permission to duck a vote that might be problematic in their swing districts. “Never,” she said with a smile. “I don’t give free passes.”

Pelosi’s toughness was leavened with a delightful and bipartisan sense of humor. She recounted sharing whispered asides with Bush that cracked them both up during boring White House meetings that dragged on and on.

In her speech Thursday announcing her retirement from leadership, she paraphrased the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” We’ve heard that line before from prominent figures leaving the stage, but it touched me coming from Pelosi because of her deep and abiding Roman Catholic faith.

When she said she prayed for the presidents she supported and those she opposed, including Trump, she was serious. Nancy Pelosi is a believer. And her belief has made ours a more perfect union.