Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday that she plans to not run for her leadership position when the new Congress convenes. The House’s top Democrat for the last two decades leaves behind a legacy of division.
The image of her ripping up the president’s speech after the 2020 State of the Union nicely sums up her not-so-nice tenure. “I don’t want to see him impeached,” Pelosi said of Donald Trump while in Europe during his presidency. “I want to see him in prison.” She later called him “a deranged, unhinged, dangerous” president. Even in her goodbye speech, she could not resist taking a dig. She said, “I have enjoyed working with three presidents.”
Trump felt about her as she did about him. “I think she’s an animal,” he said of Pelosi earlier this month. “She’s incapable of doing deals,” Trump assessed during his presidency. “She’s a nasty, vindictive, horrible person.”
Strip away the vitriol and one discovers more than a grain of truth in Trump’s assessment. Nancy Pelosi was incapable as speaker of reaching across the aisle to craft deals. She carried a big stick to beat mavericks in her own caucus into submission. She never wielded the olive branch to extend to the other party.
A single House Republican voted for Obamacare, which numbered one more than the Republicans who voted for the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Her refusal to consider a more palatable Build Back Better Act resulted in a Democrat-controlled Senate refusing to pass it.
One does not expect a House leader to cave to the opposing party on their legislation. But Pelosi’s iron-fisted leadership that prevented all but a few Democrats from crossing the aisle to support much of the major legislation advanced by Republican presidents generally meant no concessions to Democrats and laws more extreme than ones in which both parties took a role in crafting. An extreme woman influenced our politics to move further to the poles.
While whipping a caucus into uniformity speaks to talents as a disciplinarian, the almost complete absence in her record of persuading and cajoling the other side to support the bills that Democrats championed indicates a glaring failure in the one skill typically associated with great legislators. She did not, as her bête noire did (in his business career, at least), master the art of the deal.
Almost anyone can win with superior numbers (and Pelosi failed at that repeatedly in her latest go-around as speaker). It takes a special skill to make a friend of an enemy. Pelosi completely lacked that skill.
An extreme woman influenced our politics to move further to the poles.
Many quick-reaction assessments to Pelosi’s announcement describe her, as the headline of Harold Meyerson’s Thursday article at the American Prospect’s website does, as “The Greatest-Ever Speaker of the House.” Such superlatives indicate the degree to which we live in a political world of Nancy Pelosi’s creation. Her glaring failure as a legislator to peel off members of the opposing party for key votes — something once considered the defining characteristic of a master legislator — does not occur to pundits because that sort of deal-making, compromise, and consensus-building so rarely occurs in our politics. Nancy Pelosi did that.
It wasn’t always like this. The norm pre–Nancy Pelosi involved major legislation capturing some degree — sometimes a great degree — of support from members of the minority party.
Under Speaker John McCormack, the sponsors of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 joined with 138 House Republicans, 80 percent of the GOP caucus, to pass the legislation. Speaker Tom Foley corralled more Republicans than Democrats to vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act in 1993. A few years later, when Newt Gingrich served as speaker, 118 Democrats joined 224 Republicans to pass the Defense of Marriage Act. (READ MORE from Daniel J. Flynn: 5 Reasons Why Republicans Failed in the Elections)
Given that she grew up in a family in which politics literally acted as the family business, Pelosi, one might think, would excel at that at which she failed miserably. But neither her father nor her brother served as the influence on her political intolerance and rigidity, but, rather, the city that she represented.
Her two immediate predecessors as Democratic House leaders, Dick Gephardt and Tom Foley, both lived in districts that contained enough Republicans to make elections not foregone conclusions. Pelosi represents the ninth-bluest district in the United States (and the fourth wealthiest). If you live in a city that bans Happy Meals and tears down statues of Ulysses S. Grant, then your sense of the middle likely veers far from it. And going home to a place where reports of Republican sightings fall below Elvis sightings means that speaking to Republicans in language that they understand and appreciate becomes terribly difficult. The fact that she split time between San Francisco and Washington, D.C., a city that voted 92 percent Democrat to 5 percent GOP in the last presidential election, also did not help in her dealings with Republicans, an alien species in the politically cloistered worlds that she inhabited.
Crucially, Pelosi’s view of Republicans as enemies to punish rather than as people to collaborate with on governance resulted in American voters twice, after four years of Pelosi as speaker, voting in a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives. If she really were so great at her job, then the American people would not have twice essentially fired her so quickly.
Rather than learn from these failures, Democrats instead double down on them. Hakeem Jeffries, her likely successor, hails from a New York City district that voted for the Democratic candidate with 82 percent or more of the vote in the last four presidential elections.
Whether we call them speakers or minority leaders, they all go by another title: representative. Nancy Pelosi failed at representing the American people because she represents a place so bizarrely different from the rest of the country.