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The Power of Nancy Pelosi

Can the Democrats’ polarizing leader chart a path to victory in the 2018 midterm elections?

the power of pelosi

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

Nancy Pelosi sits in a black-leather booth at Americana, a burger bistro in downtown Des Moines, radiating optimism. “We’re in a very good place,” she says of Democrats’ odds in November. Special-election results suggest more than 100 seats in the House of Representatives are in play, and Democrats need less than two dozen to regain a majority. At the prospect of a victory that could check Trump’s power – and, Pelosi expects, reinstall her as House speaker – she bangs a piece of cutlery, hard, on the table. “The gavel,” she says. “The gavel makes all the difference in the world.” She breaks from her reverie to note the absurdity of the scene – “I didn’t mean to pick up the knife,” she apologizes, laughing – then adds, “Awesome power. The speaker has awesome power.”

The San Francisco Democrat has been here before. She engineered the party’s rebound from the abyss of John Kerry’s 2004 loss to George W. Bush, leading Democrats to power two years later, when she broke the “marble ceiling,” becoming the highest-ranking elected woman in American history. As speaker, she stewarded passage of the Recovery Act, Wall Street reform and, her proudest achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Pelosi never inspired a cult of personality in the manner of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but those who’ve fought in the trenches with her, like Phil Schiliro, President Obama’s legislative-affairs director, tout Pelosi’s “incredible tenacity” and legislative prowess: “She would rather chew glass than lose a vote.”

In the face of both the Tea Party and Donald Trump, Pelosi has unified Democrats to protect the core of her legislative achievements, while capitalizing on Republican rifts to block the draconian cuts of the president’s proposed budgets. Despite these accomplishments, Pelosi also presents a political risk for her party. In a midterm where base turnout may prove decisive, she is “hate-nip” for the opposition: 84 percent of Trump voters view Pelosi “very unfavorably,” outpacing even North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in an April poll. The GOP and its dark-money allies are spending millions to blast her as the embodiment of “San Francisco values” and hitting Democratic candidates who would “fall in line” behind her.

While Republicans skewer Pelosi as a creature of the far left, she is actually closer to the center of her party. Her once-radical views on LGBTQ rights are now mainstream. Frustrating the Bernie Sanders wing, she argues against making support for sweeping proposals like “Medicare for All” into litmus tests for Democrats. And she is tamping down talk of impeachment. “From what we know, it’s off the table,” Pelosi says, calling buzz about removing Trump a “gift for the Republicans.” Pelosi is also challenged by Blue Dog Dems to her right, who are demanding a “new generation of leadership” and seek to rebrand Democrats as patriotic pragmatists.

None of this controversy eclipses the reality of her power. Pelosi is charting the strategic course of the 2018 election, raising millions of dollars and boosting the recruits who would plug into a political machine she’s honed for nearly 15 years. The stakes could not be higher: “Civilization as we know it is at risk in this election,” Pelosi says. “We have to win.” But as she sits in an Iowa pub on a warm Sunday in May, enjoying a slice of dark-chocolate torte, Pelosi is unbothered by the dangers or her doubters. She can get that gavel back, she insists, and knows how to use it to put Trump in his place. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I am confident,” she says. “I’m really good at what I do.”

At a Democratic fundraiser earlier in the evening, Pelosi stood in an indigo suit before a wall-size American flag doting on Iowa congressmen and local grandees. A $75 ticket included a dinner of chicken and squash; for $1,500, high-rollers could attend a private afterparty with the minority leader. Pelosi doesn’t hate the players, or the game – she’s a master at raising money for Democrats. Her haul as the party leader is a staggering $660 million, including nearly $70 million this cycle.

Unlike Paul Ryan, the retiring speaker whose budget wonkery has not translated into leadership, Pelosi is a politician of many gifts; Schiliro likens her to a five-tool player in baseball: “She’s tireless, and she’s able to do policy, votes, fundraising and lead a caucus.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a top Pelosi ally in the House, praises her ability “to forge consensus” in a party that’s hardly less factionalized than the GOP. “She listens, and listens, to people.”

Pelosi’s liabilities were also on display in Des Moines. Gary Leffler, a 57-year-old retired farmer, was the ringleader of a dozen protesters picketing outside. One sign read “Dinner with Nancy? 75 crumbs” – referencing Pelosi’s controversial description of the average American’s gains from the Trump tax cut. Wearing a Trump T-shirt, a blue MAGA hat and a bushy mustache, Leffler stood beside his tractor, airbrushed with a streaming American flag across the hood: “I wish I would have made one more sign,” he said of Pelosi. “ ’Please Don’t Retire!’ She’s almost like an undercover Republican, with all the things she’s saying.”

Pelosi is unique among congressional leaders in being weaponized against her party. Through April, she was featured in more than a third of House GOP TV spots, many of them appealing to the prejudices of Republican voters. In Georgia, an ad featuring an eclectic mix of San Franciscans singing the praises of special-election House candidate Jon Ossoff ended with a black man in dreadlocks saying, “San Francisco loves them some Jon Ossoff!” The Congressional Leadership Fund, Ryan’s Super PAC, has aggressively yoked swing-district candidates to Pelosi. Director Corry Bliss told USA Today, “We’re going to spend millions and millions of dollars reminding voters across the country why Nancy Pelosi is bad for the country,” calling her the “most toxic, unpopular politician in American politics, period.”

Pelosi believes the GOP is simply afraid of her. “I’ve made some very powerful, rich enemies,” she says. “I don’t think we should allow our opponents to choose the leaders of the Democratic Party. But that’s what they’re trying to do.” Her strategy in the face of the Republican onslaught is to grin and bear it. “I don’t spend money to take my numbers back up,” she says. “I’d rather spend the money on the candidates who win than getting into a tickle contest with a skunk over this stuff.” DNC Chair Tom Perez also shrugs off the Pelosi attacks as a sign of “desperation” from a GOP that can’t defend cutting taxes for the wealthiest or raising health care premiums for the middle class.

Candidates who have been on the business end of the Pelosi attacks believe they’re effective – at least in Trump country. James Thompson, an Army vet who narrowly lost a special House election in Kansas in 2017, had nearly pulled even, before the GOP unleashed an ad blitz. “I was constantly compared to Nancy Pelosi, who I’d never spoken with,” says Thompson. The Democratic Party stayed on the sidelines, and victory slipped out of reach.

In a recent special election in Pennsylvania, however, Democratic candidate Conor Lamb hit on a strategy to neutralize the Pelosi attacks, which featured in nearly 60 percent of GOP ads. Lamb declared he wouldn’t back Pelosi as the Democratic leader – and won. “Some candidates are seeing it as an opportunity,” says Rep. Tim Ryan, a centrist Ohio Democrat who tried to topple Pelosi as minority leader in 2017. “They’re showing an independent streak at a moment when voters are looking for an independent member of Congress.”

Pelosi insists she has no objection. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says of candidates in red districts who distance themselves from her. “I just want them to win.”

In a parallel universe, Pelosi is already retired. “If Hillary had won and the Affordable Care Act was protected, I could have happily gone home,” she says. “Nobody in California gets Potomac Fever, believe me.” Pelosi is 78, but presents at least 15 years younger, with a drive that exhausts her millennial aides. The week she spoke to Rolling Stone, she’d been in 10 cities, including Boston, Miami and San Francisco. Pelosi credits her stamina to an unchecked intake of chocolate – “Usually, I like very dark. But a good Hershey’s with almonds never offended anyone” – and to “being Italian-American. You’re a different sort of a creature.”

Pelosi’s midterm playbook is simple: Trump is his own worst enemy – his drag on the GOP has sent more than 40 House incumbents charging for the exits. He’s also fixed the recruitment issues that dogged Democrats in 2016. “Trump recruited them for us,” Pelosi says. “So we get the A team, and they get the retirements.”

The “A team” Pelosi praises is establishment in its makeup. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is backing many candidates with similar profiles – military veterans, prosecutors or military veterans who became prosecutors. The party has intervened in select races to help centrists advance over progressive heartthrobs who, Pelosi says, don’t have “the faintest chance of winning the general election.” Progressives see the backlash against Trump as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shake up the status quo. They point to a stunning primary win in Georgia that could make Stacey Abrams the nation’s first African-American female governor. “I don’t think the DCCC should be anointing candidates,” says James Zogby, a board member of Sanders’ grassroots group Our Revolution and a member of the DNC. “Nobody put them in the position to decide what voters need to decide.”

Pelosi is unapologetic. “That’s how you win,” she says. “It’s about one district at a time.”

Any “blue wave” will be made up of lots of little drops – tough races, won by tight margins, that, Pelosi hopes, add up to a tsunami. Otherwise, the party faces a nightmare scenario: “You could have a wave that earns you 20 seats big, and you miss 30 seats small,” she says. As many as 100 seats could be in play, but Pelosi says the party can only afford to contest about 70. Candidates who want to keep the full backing of the DCCC will have to stick to the playbook. “Everybody in the 70 has to really perform, or else they know we’ll go someplace else,” Pelosi says. It’s a hard line, but she owns it: “I say to candidates, ‘It’s not about you – it’s about the one in five children in America who live in poverty. That’s what it’s about.’ ”

Over the course of our interview, Pelosi returns to this statistic like a touchstone. “That’s my purpose,” she says. But as an old-school politico, she believes you lead not with your heart on your sleeve, but with the issues that move independent votes. “It’s not a winning issue in the campaigns,” she says. “People don’t want to care about poor people. They want to care about themselves. So it’s a middle-income message” that candidates will be carrying forward in November. Addressing issues like child poverty, she says, is “in our DNA, but not in our talking points.”

Pelosi touts the party’s Better Deal, debuted in 2017: “Better jobs, better pay, better future,” she says. The platform seeks to deliver on two of Trump’s broken promises: a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and price negotiation on Medicare drugs – and includes initiatives for rural broadband, job training and pension protections. It’s been panned by progressives for ignoring people of color and its tepid economic ambition. Zogby calls it “eminently forgettable.”

Ironically, the once-stodgy Senate is teasing a bolder, more youth-oriented package of decriminalized marijuana, gun control and net neutrality. The disconnect rises from the different imperatives of Senate and House races. Senate candidates, running statewide, have to draw out younger voters in big cities. House races in suburban swing districts, party strategists argue, are better served by a broad economic message that draws contrasts to Republicans. Pelosi praises the Better Deal as a consensus platform. “The members shaped this,” she says. “It wasn’t something where I said, ‘This is what I think it should be. Now sell it.’ ”

Looking ahead, Pelosi frets about what she can’t control. The trouble with Trump, she admits, is the spectacle: “I don’t like that everything is concentrated on porn stars. It’s hard to break in and say, ‘Wait a minute: He’s terrible, but his policies are worse.’ ” She’s less concerned about chatter on the Hill that her time is up. “I think some of it is a little bit on the sexist side,” she says. “Has anyone asked what’s-his-name, the one who’s the head of Senate” – referring to Mitch McConnell, whose favorability rating is, in fact, lower than hers – “ ’How much longer do you think you’ll stay in this job?’ Nobody ever says that to anybody except a woman.” Her eyes flash. “But you know what? You get the upside and the downside of it.” Are Democrats really going to turn away from a history-making leader if she can guide them to victory in the “Year of the Woman”? “It’s a question,” Pelosi insists, “of who can fight this man in the White House.”

What does Pelosi think she can get done? “A big infrastructure bill is something that we think we can achieve with the president,” she says. “Because it has so much popular appeal.” Assuming political deadlock continues through the election, Pelosi also vows to press forward with bills to protect the Dreamers and promote gun safety, daring Trump to oppose legislation with “overwhelming public support.” And what of high crimes and misdemeanors? “You get the power of subpoena, you don’t know where it takes you,” she says. “I wouldn’t not impeach the president for political reasons.”

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In This Article: 2018 Midterms, Democrats

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