Four days before the election that would return the Democratic Party to a majority in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi sat in a nearly empty restaurant on San Francisco’s Embarcadero late in the afternoon, drinking green tea and eating a chocolate sundae. “We have to be strategic in whatever we do,” the leader of the House Democrats said, considering the desire some in her party had to zealously investigate the Trump administration.
“In terms of subpoena power, you have to handle it with care,” Pelosi continued. “Yes, on the left there is a Pound of Flesh Club, and they just want to do to them what they did to us.” She shook her head emphatically. “That’s not who we are,” she said. “Go get somebody else if that’s who you want.”
Pelosi is nothing if not purposeful. The following day, rallying with Democratic candidates in a San Francisco park, she would wear an orange pantsuit, explaining to crowds that orange was “the color of gun-violence protection.” This afternoon she had booked a table at Delancey Street, a restaurant that was famous, she said, for employing ex-convicts: “Redemption,” she added emphatically, in case I might have missed the point.
Pelosi told me that she and the House Democrats had every intention of working with President Trump on things like lowering prescription-drug costs, rebuilding America’s infrastructure and protecting the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation. She reminded me of her long stints on the House Appropriations and Intelligence Committees — panels on which, “left to our own devices, we could always find our way in a bipartisan manner.”
There were a lot of Democrats, I suggested, who believed that bipartisanship had been rendered antique in the Trump era. “Yeah,” Pelosi replied, smirking, “and I have those who want to be for impeachment and for abolishing ICE” — Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the federal law-enforcement agency spearheading Trump’s crackdown on immigration. “Two really winning issues for us, right? In the districts we have to win? I don’t even think they’re the right thing to do. If the evidence from Mueller is compelling, it should be compelling for Republicans as well, and that may be a moment of truth. But that’s not where we are.”
This was the question with which Democrats were wrestling, on the eve of their reconquest of the House and Pelosi’s expected return to House speaker, the job she held once before, from 2007 to 2011: Was Pelosi where they were? Was this genius of orderly politics equipped for the daily earthquakes brought on by Trump’s fulminations?
I asked her if she had any reason to believe Trump was willing to work together in good faith. She laughed. “I don’t think he knows,” she said. “You know how I talk to him?” She put down her spoon. “I just say it in public. That’s what he hears: what people say in public. Now, President Bush: a gentleman, we have disagreements on the liberal-conservative spectrum, but it’s not — my God.” She laughed mirthlessly as she thought of Trump again. “What’s the word I could use instead of ‘grotesque’?”
Pelosi shrugged wearily. “We’ll see,” she said. “We’ll have a contrast between decency and dignity and openness and bipartisanship and oneness, and whatever he decides to wake up to be that day.” But, she went on, what lay ahead was not a contest of manners, nor even of parties. In Pelosi’s view, Trump seemed bent on threatening the institutions of democracy, beginning with his attacks on the free press. “He’s trying to destroy the collective consciousness of our country.”
When I half-jokingly protested that in fact Trump loved the press, Pelosi quickly replied: “May I say something you’re not going to like? I think the press loves him. All day on TV — and I don’t even watch TV, except sports. But he says somebody had a horse face — all day we hear about that. We hear about Kanye West, all day. You just give him all day! So I don’t want you to think I’m making an analogy” — the descendant of Italian immigrants then laughed, unable to resist — “but Mussolini, he didn’t care what they said about him, as long as they were talking about him.”
For months, Pelosi has been openly campaigning to be the next speaker of the House should her party gain a majority in the midterm elections, as it did on Election Day. This second speakership would make her the principal counterweight to a president she unabashedly described to me as “a very dangerous man.” It would also most likely be the final act of the 78-year-old legislator’s long career as the most powerful woman in the history of American politics. In interviews, she has audaciously declared herself to be a “master legislator”; issued policy statements on behalf of the Democratic caucus; and implicitly dared any challenger to make themselves known while also quelling opposition to her speakership by hinting in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in October that she was open to being a “transitional figure.” When I asked Pelosi about this olive branch two weeks later, however, she abruptly walked it back: “I think every leader is a transitional figure.”
Her torrid October schedule, spanning more than two dozen cities, involved meeting with candidates whose victories on Nov. 6 were mostly all but assured, while taking care to avoid hotly contested races where the presence of one of the least popular and most reliably demonized figures in American politics might cost a Democrat votes. Pelosi had spent the previous day in Arizona, rallying volunteers and donors on behalf of Ann Kirkpatrick — a candidate who, then seven points ahead of her Republican opponent in internal polls, didn’t really need Pelosi’s help. But Kirkpatrick had publicly stated that she would vote for Pelosi as speaker, and Pelosi was offering a display of gratitude. And no doubt when the time came for Kirkpatrick to ask for a plum committee assignment — the Appropriations Committee happened to be her first choice — the speaker would be only too happy to demonstrate what loyalty got you with Nancy Pelosi.
“She is, in my view, the best speaker I’ve ever seen,” said David Obey, the cantankerous former Democratic congressman from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who served under eight different speakers, including Pelosi, over the course of his 42-year congressional career. “She understands her caucus, and she doesn’t run it like a San Francisco liberal. She runs it by trying to find its center of gravity. She works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen, and I think she has more determination to stand for something than anybody I’ve ever dealt with.”
When I asked Obey whether such skills were of any use in negotiating with a president like Trump, he acknowledged with a grunt, “Well, I think it’s damn near an impossible task for anybody to work with him. But to the extent that it’s possible, she’s the one who would have the best chance. If Trump plays that game of agreeing to something and then backing off, she has the talent to unify her caucus so that they have a unified message to take to the American people — because in cases like that, only the American people can set matters straight.”
Pelosi is something of a paradox in the world of politics. A Gallup poll five months ago found her favorability rating to be at a dismal 29 percent, and yet — unlike other unpopular political figures such as Trump and Hillary Clinton — her 31 years in public life have been free of scandal. She has been excoriated from the right as the quintessence of California limousine liberalism. But she is also a practicing Catholic whose first career was as a stay-at-home mother of five children, with little in common with — and at times little patience for — the new generation of activists in her party, to whom she sometimes refers as “the lefties.” Pelosi — who with her husband, the investor Paul Pelosi, owns a large house in San Francisco’s upper-crust Presidio Heights as well as a Napa Valley vineyard — is indeed rich. But 29 members of Congress, 18 of them Republicans, are richer.
What sets her apart from other legislators of her stature is her gender. Pelosi has been known to say: “No one gives you power. You have to take it from them.” The leitmotif of her three-decade ascent is that of a woman wresting power away from a male-dominated political machine, until one day the machine discovered she was its master.
Pelosi speaking at a news conference about the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Sept. 26.CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times
Pelosi arrived in San Francisco in 1969 at age 29 with an advanced degree in back-room Democratic politics. Her father, Tom D’Alesandro, was a Baltimore congressman and mayor on intimate terms with the leading Democrats of his day; President Franklin Roosevelt fondly addressed him as Tommy. Pelosi moved doggedly up the California Democratic ranks: first as a fund-raiser; then as the chairwoman of the Northern California party; then, in 1982, as the first party chairwoman of a large state; then the host committee chairwoman of the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco; and a year after that, as the finance director of the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Still, when Pelosi, at 46, first ran for Congress in a 1987 special election, she was derided by the campaign of her Democratic primary opponent Harry Britt as a pampered and unserious “party girl.” And as one of only 26 women in a body of 435 members, Pelosi soon learned that, as her first chief of staff, Judy Lemons, told me: “Sexual harassment and sexual overreaching were absolutely institutionalized. It was part of the deal.”
Pelosi took the system as it was. It was never her way to complain about being called a “gutsy broad” by jowly old bulls like Dan Rostenkowski, a Democratic congressman from Chicago, and stared at like a filet mignon. She established herself as a formidable fund-raiser and made still more friends upon landing a seat in 1993 on the Appropriations Committee — which, before Congress curtailed the practice, controlled the process of distributing the lucrative earmarks that members sought for their districts, constituents and benefactors.
When I asked Pelosi whether Democratic leaders had ever encouraged her to rise in the ranks, she scoffed. “They didn’t ever invite me to a meeting,” she said. “The only time I was ever in the Democratic speaker’s office was when I became speaker. When I decided to run, the first thing I heard was: ‘Who said she could run?’ Oh, light my fire, why don’t you! Then they said, ‘Why don’t women just make a list of things they want done, and we’ll do them?’ We’re not talking about the 1800s — we’re talking about 19 years ago!”
In 2001, Pelosi ran for minority whip. The move, like Pelosi’s determination more generally, was informed by the not-unfounded belief that if she didn’t lead the Democrats, someone else was apt to bungle the job. “What she really saw was a leadership that was marking time,” George Miller, Pelosi’s colleague in the California delegation and an ally in the whip campaign, told me. “And one thing she doesn’t do is mark time.”
Pelosi’s two main opponents, the courtly Marylander Steny Hoyer and the celebrated civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia, proved no match for her shrewd deployment of campaign donations to woo members into her camp. Years later, John Spratt, a South Carolina congressman who voted against her at the time, sheepishly told me, “I couldn’t quite see her as whip, because you need to be kind of tough to be whip, and I estimated her differently. I just didn’t put two and two together.”
The speaker of the House is constitutionally the presiding officer of the lower legislative chamber and statutorily second in line to the presidency, after the vice president. But the power conferred by the office is almost entirely situational. A speaker can promulgate the majority party’s legislative agenda and frame the parameters of what takes place on the House floor. But this is no guarantee of legislative success, even when one party controls every branch of government — as the current speaker, Paul Ryan, can glumly attest. Ryan’s Republican House membership has spent its time in the majority fiercely split between those inclined to govern and those hellbent on ideological warfare. Unable to command the far right, either by reverence or by fear, and condescended to by the leader of his own party in the White House, Ryan, for much of his tenure, has been a curiously irrelevant figure.
By contrast, during Nancy Pelosi’s four years as speaker, there was no confusion as to who was in control. Pelosi used the tools at her disposal — committee assignments, campaign donations — to establish a balance among her party’s coalitions while also reminding everyone that her job was not simply to officiate and appease. As one of Pelosi’s former senior staff members, describing Pelosi’s outlook, told me: “What do you call a person who’s 99 percent loyal? Disloyal. She has a long memory.” Crossing Pelosi, it was understood, came at a cost.
As evidence, Democratic members had only to look at that lion of the House, Michigan’s John Dingell, who did not vote for Pelosi as whip in 2001 — after which Pelosi backed a Democratic challenger to Dingell’s seat in 2002 and later offered backstage support to her California colleague Henry Waxman when he challenged and defeated Dingell for chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008. In 2006, Pelosi supported her close ally John Murtha of Pennsylvania in his doomed and divisive quest to wrest the majority-leader post away from Steny Hoyer, her chief opponent in the 2001 whip race. Jane Harman, another California representative and a respected foreign-policy specialist, was denied the House Intelligence Committee chairmanship in 2007 owing to some mysterious falling out with Pelosi.
But as Newt Gingrich learned the hard way two decades ago, an autocratic speaker is a short-lived one. Pelosi’s reign was successful because she understood the will of her caucus rather than bending it to hers. “There are two sets of negotiating skills you need as speaker,” said Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who served as one of Pelosi’s most trusted lieutenants in the House from 2003 until he departed for the Senate in 2017. “There are the skills you use to bring the caucus together, and then the skills you use when you’re dealing with the other party. Your ability on the latter depends on the former. If you turn around and your troops aren’t with you, you’ve obviously lost your bargaining strength. So one of the things that’s really set Nancy Pelosi apart is her uncanny ability to unite all the different Democratic coalitions around a negotiating position. And whether it was Bush or Boehner or Ryan, they never doubted that she had the votes to back up her position.”
Unifying Pelosi’s caucus has meant more than just bridging the predictable racial, geographical and ideological divisions among the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the Progressive Caucus and the moderate Blue Dog Coalition. “There’s an old saying in politics: If you don’t know your jewels, know your jeweler,” David Obey told me. “She understands what each individual member needs.” George Miller said: “When we had the tough votes to take, there were times when she’d say, ‘Just give me the names and then leave me alone.’ ”
Among the toughest of tough votes, Miller said, was the Affordable Care Act. As the sweeping health care reform bill took shape in early 2009, Pelosi confronted a landscape peopled with intransigent House Republicans, reluctant Blue Dogs, liberals demanding nothing less than a single-payer system, skittish White House advisers and Senate Democrats willing to waste months in quixotic pursuit of bipartisan cover.
Pelosi — who in her first floor speech in 1987 vowed to fight AIDS and who in 2002 was the most high-profile Democrat to vote against invading Iraq — fell back on the credibility she had with progressives to persuade them that the “public option” hybrid of single-payer and privately managed health care plans was now dead on arrival in the Senate. Then she persuaded Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, an anti-abortion Democrat, to drop his demand that the health care bill prohibit federal funds being used on abortion. When a host of other backstage deals with Blue Dogs — like reckoning with disparities among states in Medicare reimbursements — failed, Pelosi managed the fallout. Obamacare passed in the House by three votes.
“I’d remind people: We would not have health care today were it not for Nancy Pelosi,” Obey said. “There were all kinds of people, both in our caucus and in the White House, who were willing to settle for one-tenth of a loaf. And she said, ‘To hell with that. We were sent here to do more.’ ”
If Pelosi played a decisive role in the passage of Obamacare, she was also a factor in its unpopularity. Less than two weeks before it cleared the House, Pelosi acknowledged the public’s apprehensiveness about the bill by telling an audience at the National Association of Counties’s annual legislative conference, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of controversy.” Pelosi was trying to convey that the bill’s actual value would become clear to Americans once it was enacted, but her breezy explanation remains the most memorable gaffe of her political career.
For all her mastery of Washington’s inside game, Pelosi has never been a deft public-facing politician. Early in her career, a close associate told me, Pelosi hired a speech coach and studied videos of herself, with no discernible improvement. An aide once gently informed her that a speech she had just given “meandered at times” — which Pelosi, who is notoriously tough on her staff, did not take well. “How was that — did I meander?” she said to the aide for weeks thereafter.
Pelosi’s speaking style is less tangential than cubist, full of unexpected angles. At times, she seems to be carrying on three or four different conversations at once. Her prodigious memory can prove burdensome — everything seems to remind her of something else — and she often seeks to legitimize her assertions with quotations from Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., the Constitution or some other unassailable authority. She often quotes herself too, or party slogans commissioned by her and given a focus group’s seal of approval: Six for ’06 (in 2006), Reigniting the American Dream (2011), Ladders of Opportunity (2012), A Better Deal (2017), For the People (2018).
Still, Pelosi’s foremost liability is the effectiveness of the attacks against her. In 2010, Republicans spent $65 million attacking Pelosi in ads; the Republican National Committee hung a banner from its headquarters that read FIRE PELOSI. The attacks have often borne more than a tinge of sexism; in 2012, when Pelosi, as minority leader, wielded less power than the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, Republicans’ negative television ads were seven times as likely to mention Pelosi as Reid, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. The 2010 onslaught took its toll on Pelosi’s public standing — her favorable rating dropped into the 20s — but otherwise did not faze her. She made clear to her caucus members that they should do whatever it took to win, even if it meant publicly distancing themselves from her. “I don’t know anyone in the world with thicker skin, or anyone about whom more callous things have been said, and she just truly doesn’t care,” a former Pelosi staff member told me. “There’s a small constituency she cares about: her members.”
That November, when the G.O.P. seized 63 House seats and Democrats briefly considered whether new leadership was in order, Republicans cheekily replaced the banner on the R.N.C. building with one that read HIRE PELOSI. For the next eight years as minority leader, though, Pelosi did some of her best work. She managed to keep her caucus unified, while John Boehner’s remained unruly. Some of the Tea Party freshmen who came to power in 2010 railing against the “Pelosi liberals” would, when I interviewed them several years later, confide to me that they wished their Republican leaders possessed Pelosi’s spine. Among Pelosi’s proudest feats, she told me, was keeping enough Democrats together to routinely vote against the G.O.P.’s incessant efforts to legislatively chip away at Obamacare. Even if such bills passed the House and the Senate, President Obama could veto them, and Pelosi’s magic number of 146 dissenting Democrats (just over one-third of the House’s overall membership) would be enough to sustain the president’s veto.
During budget fights, House conservatives watched in astonished fury as Pelosi obtained one concession after the next — like increased spending for community health centers and freezing the number of deportation officers — even after Trump became president. It helped that the minority leader knew, far better than the Republicans, where the votes were. But her negotiating prowess was also a result of understanding legislative substance better than her counterparts did. “You have to have knowledge of the details,” she told me, casually adding, “That’s how I was able to beat them on everything.”
But Pelosi’s caucus also grew restive during its years in the minority. Younger members impatient to distinguish themselves in a body of 435 saw little hope of achieving committee chairmanships; Pelosi, unlike her Republican counterparts, maintained the tradition of allotting them based on seniority. She did this out of deference to the Congressional Black Caucus, according to several former staff members, because African-American members have historically not been granted high party standing except through longevity. But between the unavailability of chairman posts and a leadership pipeline clogged with 70-somethings — Pelosi; Hoyer, the minority whip; and James Clyburn, the assistant minority leader — younger House Democrats have been left to ponder other opportunities.
“You have some of the institutional members say, ‘Who are these upstarts?’ ” one of these younger Democrats, Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who was elected in 2012, told me in 2015. “One member of Congress compared us to spoiled kids, like teenagers who want a car on their 16th birthday. But you look at my class: Tulsi Gabbard, she’s not going to stay in the House for long — she’ll run for governor. Joe Kennedy, the same. Pat Murphy, the same. And they’re all talented, ambitious and good fund-raisers. I’ve just got to think that when you see that 20-year road to be in a position of consequence, other options look a lot more attractive.” O’Rourke, of course, left this year to pursue those other options, following his fellow erstwhile rising House stars Xavier Becerra (who was appointed attorney general of California in 2017) and Kyrsten Sinema (whom Arizona elected to the Senate this month).
The growing unease born of being in the minority was not confined to these members, however. “She faces more division in her caucus than she ever had before,” the former Pelosi aide told me. After the disastrous 2010 midterms, Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog moderate from North Carolina, decided to run against her for minority leader. Following the devastation of the 2016 election, another centrist, Tim Ryan of Ohio, challenged her as well. Neither Shuler nor Ryan made much pretense of being a Pelosi-caliber legislative tactician. Their candidacies were more based on what they were not: not from San Francisco, not liberal. They were also not skilled vote-counters. Shuler managed to collect just 43 of the Democratic caucus’s 193 votes; six years later, Ryan took 63, to Pelosi’s 134.
Still, by the time of Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi’s leadership in November 2016, several Democrats were no longer hiding their dissatisfaction — itself a sign of Pelosi’s diminished power. She responded by creating new leadership posts and appointed three young members — Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — to oversee a “rebranding” of the party that was more an exercise in inclusiveness than a substantive reimagination. She also began assuring members that she did not intend to stick around forever. She insisted publicly, for example, that had Hillary Clinton won, Pelosi would have felt that the Democrats no longer required her stewardship.
Many doubted this claim, including former staff members with whom I spoke. Her closest political confidant, George Miller, told me that Pelosi had never made such an indication to him. Further, the minority leader’s recent assertion that it was important for her to stay so that the American public would have “a woman at the table” struck some in her caucus as disingenuous, given that Pelosi’s perceived favorites to succeed her throughout the years — Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel of New York, Xavier Becerra and most recently Joe Crowley, who was beaten in a primary upset in New York this year by the Democratic Socialist first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — were all men.
But, Pelosi knew, nothing would mollify her caucus like victory. In paving a road back to the majority, she returned to the playbook that worked for her last time. “The first thing we had to do in 2005 was take the president’s numbers down,” Pelosi told me, referring to Bush’s approval rating. “Bush was 57 percent in early 2005.” The moment Bush introduced the idea of partly privatizing Social Security, Pelosi’s Democrats pounced and began attacking the scheme as an assault on senior citizens. “His numbers came down to 38 in the fall,” she recalled, “and that’s when the retirements started to happen” — nervous Republican congressmen who decided to vacate their seats.
Because Trump began his presidency as a polarizing force even within his own party, Pelosi said, the Democrats were best served by standing back while one fainthearted Republican House member after the next, facing variously a Trump-adoring base or a Trump-inspired anti-Republican backlash, announced their retirements — 39 House and Senate members in all. The new Democratic candidates by and large stuck to the disciplined campaign message prescribed by Pelosi’s rebranding efforts: protecting health care, advocating better jobs and wages through infrastructure improvements, restoring integrity to government. By the fall of 2018, some pundits criticized the Democratic field for not pounding away on Trump. Pelosi’s view, she recalled, was: “Yeah, that’s what Hillary did, not what we’re doing.”
With the threat of a blue wave becoming more real by the week in 2018, the Republicans returned to the formula that had served them so well over the past decade. According to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, more than 135,600 House and Senate ads in the 2018 cycle mentioned Pelosi “in an entirely negative context.” Navigating these headwinds was easier in some places than in others. The Second Congressional District of Virginia, for example, had been in G.O.P. hands since 2010, when Republicans successfully tagged the Democratic incumbent, Glenn Nye — a moderate whose voting record was ranked the ninth most independent in the entire House — as “Pelosi’s congressman.” Nye told me after the 2010 election that although Pelosi generously raised funds on his behalf, he still blamed her in part for his defeat. “My feeling was kind of, a better way to help would have been to help me with the environment. Because the environment” — by which he meant the liberal aura of Nancy Pelosi — “defeated me more than anything else.”
This year’s Democratic candidate for Nye’s old seat was Elaine Luria, a 43-year-old former Navy commander. An entrepreneur who previously voted Republican, she was well suited to a district populated by conservative-minded veterans, and she carried no personal baggage. In her campaign, Luria emphasized her military service and her commitment to pocketbook issues, while criticizing the G.O.P. incumbent, Scott Taylor, for his vote against Obamacare. She also outraised him in individual contributions.
Though Luria had never met Pelosi, she did accept a $17,000 donation from Pelosi’s PAC. A growing number of this year’s Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning districts felt obliged to say publicly that if elected they would support a change in leadership; Luria would not say whether she would vote for Pelosi as speaker. The National Republican Congressional Committee attack ads echoed a familiar theme: “Liberal Nancy Pelosi is pulling Luria’s strings.” “Your vote determines if she becomes speaker again. … Pelosi says amnesty to illegal immigrants and gun controls. It’s what you get if Elaine Luria gets elected.” Luria had jumped to the lead in August, but a poll in mid-October had her down by seven points.
On Election Day, the district was swamped with unusually heavy turnout. About a half-hour before midnight, Taylor called Luria and conceded defeat. Late that night, the congresswoman-elect received another call. It was from Nancy Pelosi. “So glad to have you join us,” she said.
Two days after the election, at just before 10 a.m., Pelosi let me into her office in the House minority leader’s suite. She had gotten very little sleep, and was subsisting, she claimed, on “very, very dark chocolate.” She referred several times to the 19 women like Luria who had helped push the House Democrats well over the threshold of 23 seats needed to reclaim the majority. In 1992, Congress’s so-called Year of the Woman, a record-breaking 106 female House candidates were on the ballot. This year there were 233, and more than 100 of them won.
Though Pelosi did not volunteer this to me, the infusion of women into the Democratic caucus carried considerable political significance to her. She lent financial support to many of them during the campaign and had every intention of tying her fate to theirs, as a close Pelosi associate told me shortly before the election: “If you look at these women who are poised to win, the second generation of Year of the Woman, do you really think they’re going to say, ‘Let’s not have a woman as speaker?’ ”
The day after the election, however, news leaked of a conference call among Pelosi’s detractors in the caucus. The nine or so dissidents — led by Kathleen Rice of New York and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado — had begun reaching out to about a dozen successful Democratic candidates to see if they were now willing to make good on their publicly expressed skepticism about Pelosi as leader. Perlmutter, who backed Tim Ryan over Pelosi in 2016, told me, “For me — and I’m even more emphatic about it than I was two years ago — this is about change. You look in the middle of the country, at the districts we picked up — a lot of the candidates said they wouldn’t support her, or avoided the question. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent demonizing her, and it’s permeated the public’s view of her. That’s not her fault. But what she hasn’t done is have a succession plan. And that’s an element of being a leader.”
A new speaker would need to win a total of 218 votes on the House floor. Assuming that the Democrats take 232 seats after the final ballot-counting, and assuming as well that no Republican votes in her favor, Pelosi could afford to lose 14 votes but no more. Perlmutter insists that Pelosi is beneath the 218 threshold — but the rebels have yet to find anyone in their caucus willing to present themselves as an alternative. Their best hope seems to be to play a game of chicken with the Democratic leader, threatening to withhold votes unless she agrees to certain concessions, like a clearly defined time limit to her tenure as speaker.
Pelosi told me a few days before the election that she wouldn’t find it necessary to stay on if a Democrat became president in 2020. “I could walk away from that,” she said. “We’d be in good hands.” But she also mentioned that there were things she would like to accomplish that would probably be impossible under Trump, like addressing climate change. As always, Pelosi was preserving her options, assessing her leverage, committing to nothing until she had to.
Trump had called to congratulate her on election night, while she and other party leaders were gathered in a ballroom at the Hyatt near the Capitol. She could barely hear him over the cheering, but he said something about a willingness to work on infrastructure. Of course, Pelosi told me, Trump said the same thing to her on the phone just after he was elected. “We just have to hope,” she said. “You always have to try.”
At least Trump “didn’t declare the election illegal,” Pelosi said. “We had a plan for that” — though really, she acknowledged, the only workable plan was “to win big. Had it been four or five seats, he would’ve tried to dismantle it.” In his news conference the day after the midterms, Trump spoke respectfully of Pelosi: “I give her a great deal of credit for what she’s done and what she’s accomplished. Hopefully, we can all work together next year to continue delivering for the American people, including on economic growth, infrastructure, trade, lowering the cost of prescription drugs.”
But Trump also warned darkly that if the House Democrats hounded his administration with investigations, he would urge the Republican-controlled Senate to investigate Pelosi’s caucus — and, he said, “I think I’m better at that game than they are, actually.” Then, as if to test their resolve, Trump rounded off the day by demanding the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replacing him with Sessions’s chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, who had been publicly critical of the Mueller investigation into possible Russian involvement in Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In the Trump era, Pelosi told me, it was obvious that the Democrats could not afford to let the president dominate every news cycle. “I do see the role as less work horse and more show horse now,” she said. But she insisted that she would gladly cede the public advocacy to her caucus’s more able communicators, like Adam Schiff, who would most likely be replacing Trump’s ally Devin Nunes as the new House Intelligence Committee chairman. “Oh, I prefer it,” she said. “And Adam, compared to Nunes — what a joke!”
But already, one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants seemed to have wandered off-message: The conservative columnist Mollie Hemingway reported the day after the midterms that the incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler of New York, had been overheard on an Acela train by an unspecified source telling someone on the phone that he intended to investigate whether Justice Brett Kavanaugh committed perjury during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Though Pelosi was reluctant to discuss the matter with me, it was obvious from her pursed lips what she thought of Nadler’s comments.
In addition to the daily combat with the White House, the probable speaker had a new caucus to tend to. Members of the Progressive Caucus were claiming that the Democrats had their energy to thank for the election results. “The majority came from other districts,” Pelosi noted wryly, but “everybody’s in a leveraging mood right now.” Five days after Pelosi said this, Ocasio-Cortez joined activists staging a sit-in outside the minority leader’s office for congressional action on climate change.
Meanwhile, requests for committee assignments were already pouring in, requiring the usual calibrations on her part: who needed a national-security-related credential, which caucuses and state delegations needed more representation where, who had been loyal to Pelosi, who had not. And which newer members should she lift into the ranks of leadership? Despite her debt to the dozens of new women, Pelosi did not appear to see it as her obligation to nurture them in any particular way. “It’s not a choice of whether I’d hand it to them on a silver platter or not,” she said. “It’s, do members want somebody anointed? I don’t think they do. The person has to emerge. People have to emerge. And it’s hard.”
But, she believed, a new leader would materialize. “We always say when the new ones come: ‘Here are the freshman recruits. Who among them will be the leaders in this Congress? Or rise in other offices? Or be president of the United States? Let’s see the opportunity.’ ”
For a moment I mistook her words as sentimental — hope springing eternal, opening day, the circle of life or some such. But no. This was Machiavellian. Power had to be seized from someone else.
I suggested that there were sometimes surprises you couldn’t predict. The barest trace of a smile crossed Pelosi’s lips. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted it in me,” she said.