What I got wrong about Nancy Pelosi

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In Washington, there are pragmatists and there are ideologues.

A pragmatist focuses on getting the best result possible, even if that means changing strategies or giving up on the ideal scenario. The ideologue believes that the principle matters more than winning or losing in the short term.

One group believes you choose your battles wisely. The other thinks the battle chooses you.

This is a bit reductive, of course; most politicians would like to be both pragmatic and ideological at the same time. But as years pass, and especially in moments of heated partisanship, they show themselves to be fundamentally one or the other.

If you had asked me 10 or 15 years ago, when I was chronicling the path of Democratic politics for the New York Times Magazine and for a book, I’d have told you Nancy Pelosi was a true ideologue at heart.

In interviews then, I found her to be maddeningly rote and dogmatic in her responses — a stiffly smiling avatar for the ’60s generation of utopian liberals who somehow managed to cling to their antiestablishment self-image while piling up houses and trust funds. (Not a giant fan of the boomers, in case you couldn’t tell.)

But the version of Pelosi we’re seeing now, in her second go at the speakership, has caused me to rethink that view. Given the perfect chance to relive the glory of Watergate, which the party’s activist base would heartily cheer, Pelosi chooses a cautious and strategic path instead.

Which could mean the 79-year-old Pelosi has evolved as a leader in this, her fourth decade in Congress. But it’s much more likely that Pelosi has been playing the same basic game all along, and I just got it wrong.

She grew up, after all, in the hub of ethnic machine politics, the only daughter of a powerful Baltimore mayor. You don’t get a lot more pragmatic than that. But then Pelosi moved to crazy liberal San Francisco — this was the 1970s version — and worked her way up the state party and then to Congress, where she cemented herself as a stalwart of the left.

When Pelosi became the country’s first woman speaker in 2006, this is the landscape she inherited: A chastened George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office, looking to salvage his last two years with some legislative victories. And Democrats controlled the Senate by the slimmest possible margin, which meant it was critical for the party to protect moderate senators from reliably red states.

Meanwhile, the Democrat who seemed most likely to reclaim the White House in 2008, Hillary Clinton, had worked hard to project a centrist image. This piece I wrote about Clinton back then, in the early days of her candidacy, carried the headline “Mrs. Triangulation.”

In other words, most of the Democratic leadership then, like a car with skewed alignment, was pulling inexorably toward the center, even as online activists were demanding a hard turn to the left. (Technically speaking, this analogy really only works if you’re driving the car in Great Britain, but I like it, so let’s not focus too much on the visualization.)

Looking back on it now, I think Pelosi made the calculation that her essential role was to hold the party to its progressive principles — to influence its policy agenda, yes, but also to mollify the grassroots fury that Howard Dean had unleashed in 2004.

In their ads and fundraising appeals, Republicans cast Pelosi as the cartoon face of America’s out-of-touch, coastal elites, but that was fine by her. Someone in power had to be the liberal icon, balancing the party’s moderate tilt, if Democrats were going to regain power, and if they were going to seize the moment once they did.

It turned out to be a pretty smart gambit. Barack Obama, not Clinton, won the presidency, and he worked closely with the Democratic House to craft his signature initiatives, pulling the agenda further left than Obama would have taken it on his own.

Even then, though, there were signs that Pelosi was a more pragmatic leader than her popular image suggested, if you were looking for them. I remember being surprised to learn, as I sifted through the forensic evidence of Obama’s collapsed budget deal with Republicans in 2011, that Pelosi had privately (and reluctantly) agreed to support a plan to modestly scale back entitlements and other spending.

Now, in the sequel to her first speakership, Pelosi finds herself in an entirely different situation. For the first time, she’s working with — or, more accurately, against — a solidly Republican-controlled Senate, with many fewer red-state Democrats holding down the center.

Further down Pennsylvania Avenue, a roguish Republican president is up for reelection. And the field of potential challengers grows vaster by the day, all but ensuring a frantic primary in which candidates will trip over themselves pandering to their populist base.

And this time Pelosi understands she has a different role to play — not to keep the party from lurching toward the accommodationist center, but rather to keep it from veering too far left and running into a wall.

“Own the center-left, own the mainstream,” is what Pelosi told the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush earlier this week.

This is why she’s repeatedly counseled against impeachment proceedings, which have zero chance of success in the Senate, but plenty of chance to send independent voters back into Trump’s waiting embrace. Pelosi has only one goal in mind now: to deny Donald Trump a second term.

It’s a harder line for the speaker to hold every day now, as Trump openly courts a showdown with Congress over its constitutional powers. Asked about this just yesterday at a live event with the Washington Post, Pelosi described Trump’s behavior as “self-impeaching” (which brought to Mind Mitt Romney’s idea of “self-deporting” immigrants).

Her comments touched off a debate in Washington over what exactly she meant by that, and whether she was softening on her resistance to impeachment, but I don’t think so.

What I heard Pelosi saying was this: We don’t have to impeach Trump, because he’s doing a pretty creditable job of disqualifying himself in the minds of next year’s electorate. Let’s not be reckless and get in the way.

To deliver the White House, and with it the rest of the government, back into Democratic hands — this is Pelosi’s strategic objective, and it’s the last time she’ll have the opportunity. She cut a deal earlier this year with younger rebels in her caucus to walk away from the job in 2022 (even though she probably could have prevailed without that concession).

The ideologue would have insisted on sticking around to fight another day. The pragmatist knows that, right now, winning is all that counts.

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