Dana Houle has served as a congressional chief of staff and has managed legislative, congressional and statewide campaigns.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke on the House floor for eight hours Wednesday, giving the longest speech in that chamber in at least a century. She did so to pressure Speaker Paul D. Ryan to permit a vote on protecting the roughly 700,000 undocumented “dreamers.” Republicans expressed delight that eyes were on the polarizing Pelosi, but her marathon speech served to energize activists while highlighting that House Republicans will not commit to a vote. Despite having little leverage, she scored a tactical success.
It’s not just Republicans who discount Pelosi’s talents. Some Democrats are unsatisfied with her leadership: They accuse her of being unable to deliver on liberal Democrats’ top priorities, hurting the party’s brand and blocking the way for younger members.
But Pelosi is one of the most underrated American politicians of the past half-century. Her media and activist critics judge her competence and leadership almost entirely based on her performance in front of a microphone. Pelosi has never tried, as Ryan did, to seduce the press, and what she says in public is occasionally convoluted. Her strength is in what she does away from the microphones.
Growing up in a political family, Pelosi learned to balance competing demands, get people enough of what they needed for them to feel satisfied, to keep track of who crossed you, who helped you, and whom to call on to return favors. And she learned to listen and ensure that people know they are heard. Pelosi draws on this experience while serving both her constituencies: San Franciscans, and the Democratic members of Congress she has led since 2003.
Pelosi is a master vote counter — and more than most 20th-century congressional leaders, she has to be. Majorities are narrower, and to pass partisan legislation, or keep a unified opposition, leaders cannot afford to have many members voting against their caucus. When Democrats have been in the minority, she has kept her representatives in check, even as Ryan and his predecessors have had to pull bills from the House floor because they got the whip count wrong.
And when Democrats were in the majority, Pelosi amassed a record that’s all the more impressive given her unpopularity nationally. In 2008, despite favorability ratings around 30 percent and attacks from the left for not defunding the Iraq War, Pelosi led House Democrats to their second straight wave election. Former Republican majority leader Tom DeLay — who knew a thing or two about keeping a caucus together — called her “the most powerful speaker in a generation. She will be able to do anything she wants.” The next two years, she passed nearly all of President Barack Obama’s legislative priorities.
Yes, of course, Pelosi is unpopular. So are Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). So is Congress. Yet, for some reason, only Pelosi gets blamed for an unpopularity that really stems from disgust with Congress and partisan polarization. Pelosi is not a scorched-earth partisan; indeed, at numerous times in her career she has been criticized for cutting deals, such as on Iraq War appropriations and Obamacare. But she also understands polarization. She sees her public role not as using policy to communicate a common ground to centrist swing voters but to expose differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Republicans and her Democratic critics likely see Pelosi’s speech as another opportunity to tie Democrats to a San Francisco socialite. But that misses one of Pelosi’s key strategies: She embraces pluralism and works to build a coalition of diversity. Her base is the large California delegation, and women, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians who remain underrepresented in Congress but make up roughly half of the historically diverse Democratic caucus.
Her critics, meanwhile, are mostly new and younger members; many have not served in the majority. Furthermore, Pelosi is the representative of the long-serving members — many women, many people of color — they see blocking their path to power.
New faces on Capitol Hill may see plenty of reasons to think that Pelosi’s run is coming to an end. But those who continue to underestimate her will continue to be mistaken. Don’t be surprised if she has another big act in her, as the Speaker who goes toe to toe with President Trump.