I have often believed that Nancy Pelosi is the only real man in Washington.
She’s got skin thicker than a rhinoceros. She raises money like a hedge fund chairman. Her personal ambitions are as obvious as they are legendary and, unlike the male congressional leaders before her and around her, she never, never, never gives up.
I vividly remember a day in 2009 when it seemed like the Affordable Care Act might not get across the finish line. Harry Reid was running into roadblocks in the Senate and President Barack Obama wasn’t exactly signaling confidence from the White House.
But Pelosi insisted health care reform was happening. “If the gate’s closed, we’ll go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll use a parachute. We’re going to get health care passed.”
Around that time, I asked Pelosi about something a female senator had said — that for a woman to be in politics, she needs to know how to take a punch. Pelosi added with a smile, “And you have to know how to throw a punch, too.”
Ask any Democrat in her caucus. This is no Disney princess.
That, along with tens of millions of dollars in ads run against her and never countered by Democrats, may be why Republicans have been so successful in demonizing Pelosi and making her the best campaign foil money can buy.
As far back as 2010, when the GOP ran $60 million worth of anti-Pelosi ads against Democrats, the Republican National Committee’s go-to message has been urging their voters to help unseat her. “40 Votes Means No More Madame Speaker,” one particularly memorable fundraising pitch read. Democrats lost 63 seats and the majority that year.
So is a leader like Pelosi, so vilified on the right, worth keeping around for the Democrats? Her allies, of course, say yes, and offer up the many examples of what she’s already done. They say she’s raised a lot of money for Democrats, and they’re not kidding. Over the course of her time in leadership, Pelosi has raised more than half a billion dollars, $643.5 million to be specific.
They also point to the fact that she’s the best “vote counter” in Washington. But counting votes doesn’t fully describe what she’s been able to do with the help of the Democratic Caucus since she’s led it.
While House Republicans have more than earned their John Boehner tag as “frogs in a wheelbarrow,” House Democrats delivered on their priorities in the majority and have mostly stayed unified in the minority, extracting as much power as possible from the numbers they have.
Take climate change, for example.
While progressives and Democrats routinely mock GOP members as “anti-science” for their failure to even acknowledge climate change, Pelosi and the House Democrats have been the only legislative body ever to do anything about it by passing the cap-and-trade bill in 2009. Democrats lost their House majority the next year, with the bill getting part of the blame. But Democrats lost the Senate, too, which never passed any climate legislation at all.
Compare Pelosi to the last five speakers and see who ranks as the most effective.
Former Speaker Tom Foley lost his own House seat in Washington state on his way out the door. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich passed significant legislation with Bill Clinton before he led the impeachment against him, only to be pushed out by his troops in a blaze of disloyalty after just four years.
The sad story of Dennis Hastert is well known, as was the reality that the real power center of the House at the time was shared with GOP leader Tom DeLay.
Boehner tried hard to keep his caucus in line, but there’s only so much a man can do with people who don’t want to follow him.
And Speaker Paul Ryan managed to pass his cherished tax cut bill, but has often found his agenda hijacked by conservatives and the president’s tweet-of-the-day, not the other way around.
Watch: Thunderous Applause as House Passes Tax Overhaul
It’s no surprise that after 13 years with Pelosi at the top, the grumbling among House Democrats for fresh blood would kick up in earnest. But it’s hard to find the instigators of the coup if it’s coming.
Several Democrats tell me that any Pelosi successor is expected to lord over the stewing family feud that Pelosi has managed to keep mostly under wraps.
Tough act to follow
“Whoever it is is going to get eaten alive by the caucus,” one Democrat told me. So the job that the truly ambitious members want is to be Pelosi’s successor once the dust settles.
There’s also concern among Democrats that if a majority materializes in November, no other leader can step in and be ready to go up against Trump on Day One. Pelosi, on the other hand, seems to have been training her whole life for this. And would anyone be more unsavory to the president as a rival across the table than a liberal woman? The Resistance might enjoy what they see.
But there’s one more reason that it’s not time for Democrats to toss Pelosi out, and they have Republicans to thank for this one. Take out your chess board and add a third dimension, because Pelosi’s value as a campaign foil has been so fortified by millions of dollars of GOP spending that it now works for Democratic hopefuls too.
Would Conor Lamb have won his seat without dumping on Pelosi? It certainly didn’t hurt him. There are lots of other Lambs in the field for Dems to capitalize on.
Even if 10, 20 or 30 new members all promised to oppose her, Pelosi would still have the votes to get back the gavel for herself and the party. The reality is that the path back to the majority might be straight over Pelosi’s back. But she is one of the few people in Washington tough enough to handle it and ambitious enough to accept it in service to a return to the top.
Watch: Pelosi: Lamb Win in Republican District a ‘Tremendous Victory’