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How Nancy Pelosi Shaped History

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Nancy Pelosi’s career as Democratic House leader is full of moments when she made a difference in history ― sometimes in front of the cameras, sometimes behind closed doors. Among the latter was a key event in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, at one of several junctures when its very survival was in doubt.

It happened in January 2010, after Democrats had lost a special election in Massachusetts that left them without the 60th vote they needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Democrats were pretty unpopular by that point, and after a year of deliberating so was their health care bill. Some high-profile Democrats, including members of Pelosi’s caucus, wanted to cut their losses, either by passing something a lot less ambitious or giving up altogether.

Pelosi was having none of it. She met with individual members in small groups or one on one, both to get a clear sense of who was having doubts and to make sure none of them defected publicly. At one caucus meeting, she listened patiently while skittish members urged the party to abandon what they now believed was a “suicide mission.” Then Pelosi took her turn at the microphone, describing the Democrats’ predicament as a test of their resolve ― and, even more importantly, their chance to carry on a crusade that dated back to Franklin Roosevelt’s day.

“I just felt like the momentum was heading in the direction of surrender,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who was then a relatively junior member of the House, told me many years later. “Pelosi just did not allow it to happen. By sheer will, she turned that room around. People like me, I still wanted to do it but I don’t know that I had the confidence to stand up to this tidal wave. She breathed confidence into everybody in that room who wanted to stay the course.”

By that point, Pelosi was said to be 20, 30 or even 40 votes short, depending on whose count you believed. All over Washington, even inside the White House, political observers and operators openly expressed doubt that she could rebuild a majority. But she did. And although “Obamacare” remained unpopular for years, quite possibly enough to deprive Democrats of their House majority in 2010, the backlash to Republican repeal efforts returned the House to Democratic control in 2018.

Along the way, it helped 20 million people to get health insurance while enshrining legal protections for people with preexisting conditions.

“We had an opportunity of a generation,” Pelosi told me in an interview afterward, in an echo of what she’d said to her caucus in 2010. “We were not passing it by.”

Pelosi’s Thursday announcement that she is stepping down as leader — which was covered by HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery — has already generated plenty of reactions from people who served alongside, worked with or observed her closely.

President Joe Biden called her “the most consequential” speaker in history, while former President Barack Obama hailed her for “breaking barriers, opening doors for others, and working every day to serve the American people.” John Boehner and Paul Ryan, both of whom sparred with Pelosi during their terms as leaders of the House Republicans, sent their own warm regards. You can count on more testimonials and more recollections, including from Pelosi’s contemporary biographers, Molly Ball and Susan Page.

I didn’t cover Pelosi as closely as those two or regular Capitol Hill correspondents, and I wouldn’t presume to know her as well. But I followed her career and, when I wrote my history of the Affordable Care Act, I researched her backstory.

Even now, I’m not sure her achievements get the recognition they deserve, given the obstacles to any kind of change in American politics, let alone the kind of sweeping legislative reforms that Democrats passed during her tenure.

A Milestone That Got Surprisingly Little Attention

In 2007, when Pelosi became the first woman to serve as speaker of the House, she became the most powerful woman in the history of American politics ― a distinction she may still hold, depending on how you compare the speaker’s post with serving as vice president or leader of the Federal Reserve, or one of nine Supreme Court justices.

Her rise to power was part of a dramatic transformation in the role of women, in American life generally and in Congress specifically. As Pelosi noted in a floor speech Thursday, the House Democratic caucus had only 12 women when she first took office in 1987. Today it has 75. Many have juggled caregiving in ways their male counterparts never have, as Pelosi, a mother of five, knows all too well.

But the milestone of Pelosi’s elevation to speaker in 2007 got a lot less attention than you might think. She didn’t appear on the cover of one of the weekly news magazines, as both of her Republican predecessors did during their tenures, and she wouldn’t until more than a decade later, while leading the opposition to then-President Donald Trump.

George W. Bush shakes hands with Nancy Pelosi at the 2007 State of the Union address, where the then-president saluted her as the first woman to serve as speaker.
George W. Bush shakes hands with Nancy Pelosi at the 2007 State of the Union address, where the then-president saluted her as the first woman to serve as speaker.

MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Ironically, one of the few people who grasped the historical import of Pelosi becoming speaker was a Republican: George W. Bush. In 2007, as the then-president began the State of the Union address, he paid tribute to Pelosi by marveling at how proud her father, former Baltimore Mayor and U.S. Rep. Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., would have been to see her presiding from the riser.

Not that Pelosi’s ascendance escaped media attention. But the focus was usually on her ideological predisposition — specifically, the possibility that the San Francisco liberal would take her party and her country too far to the left. It’s a specter that Republicans were raising just this past year in the midterm campaign, when Pelosi once again figured prominently in advertisements designed to scare conservatives into showing up at the polls.

Pelosi really has been a liberal, and she really has championed causes that, at times, were seen as the very edge of the political mainstream, if not beyond it. During the Bush presidency, for example, she voted against authorizing war in Iraq and openly called for recognizing same-sex marriage ― positions that may seem humdrum now but were plenty controversial back then. (Check out this old NBC News clip that journalist Steve Kornacki posted Thursday on Twitter.)

But Pelosi has frequently embraced deals that fell well short of liberal ideals, sometimes to the dismay of her would-be supporters, on the theory that even heavily compromised legislation can represent both the outer limits of what’s possible and a big step in the right direction.

Crafting Obamacare — And Then Saving It

That approach was crystal clear in the Affordable Care Act fight.

During the many months of negotiation over legislation, Pelosi pushed to make the program’s financial assistance more generous so that people buying insurance wouldn’t have to pay so much, even though that meant fighting with the White House, Senate leadership or sometimes both. And she lobbied to include a “public option” that would provide a government-run insurance program for those who didn’t trust private carriers.

But she also made bargains even she found painful. That was especially true on the issue of reproductive freedom.

Pelosi is a devout Catholic and considers among her most valued possessions a photo from a childhood trip to Rome, accompanying her father on a visit to the pope. At the same time, she’s a longtime defender of abortion rights, which she does not see as a contradiction even though many of her critics do. “The church has their position, and we have ours, which is that a woman has free will given to her by God,” she once told The New York Times.

“I just felt like the momentum was heading in the direction of surrender. Pelosi just did not allow it to happen.”

– Sen. Chris Murphy, recalling Pelosi’s role in saving the Affordable Care Act

In the fall of 2009, she realized she couldn’t assemble a majority without placating anti-abortion Democrats, who at that point still represented a significant chunk of the caucus. She won their support with a key concession that effectively prevented newly available Obamacare plans from paying for abortion services. Pelosi then had to explain this to a Democratic women’s caucus that included some of her closest allies. Though distraught and furious, they went along because they trusted Pelosi when she said it was the only alternative to letting health reform fail.

One reason Pelosi has gained that kind of trust is her hard work and attention to detail. She is famous for her long days, which frequently include rounds of fundraising and speaking after she’s done managing the business of the House. During the Affordable Care Act fight, Los Angeles Times reporters shadowing her one day counted phone calls to 50 different caucus members.

Pelosi makes a point of understanding the political assets and vulnerabilities of her members, and ensuring that they know she understands their strengths and weaknesses so they can see she’s looking out for their interests. Still, sometimes there’s no substitute for sheer force of will, the kind she displayed at another moment in the Affordable Care Act debate ― this time, when a group of House members were objecting to the way adjustments to Medicare would affect hospital payments in their districts.

One of them was Rep. Ron Kind, the Wisconsin House Democrat retiring this year. He got up to leave a meeting, saying he was a “no.” Pelosi got up to block his way out, grasped him by the hands and told him she wasn’t letting him leave until she was done making her case.

He listened and, after some subsequent negotiation, ended up voting yes.

A Second Act And A Fight For Democracy

Plenty of political professionals thought Pelosi would step down after Democrats lost the majority in 2010. Instead, she stayed on and used the time to prepare for what she hoped would be another chance to legislate.

That included a key piece of unfinished business on health care: giving the federal government leverage over prescription drug prices. She identified it as a top issue for the party, and then worked with her lieutenants and staff to craft a bill that could get majority support. The heated internal debate frequently spilled out into public, with both more liberal and more conservative Democrats angry at Pelosi. But in the end, they nearly all voted yes.

And although that particular bill went nowhere, because Trump wouldn’t support it and Republicans in charge of the Senate wouldn’t take it up, the exercise of putting it together gave Democrats a head start when Biden became president and Democrats got control of the Senate. It’s a big reason that a version passed earlier this year, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Like the Affordable Care Act, the prescription drug reform that finally became law was far less ambitious than the scheme longtime advocates wanted. It was also less ambitious than the House legislation Pelosi had championed just two years before. But the initiative gave the federal government an authority that future lawmakers can expand, while handing the pharmaceutical lobby a rare defeat. For some Americans who now pay a lot for their drugs, the savings should start to materialize next year.

That’s all in addition to the law’s investments in clean energy, which are the largest in American history.

Of course, what has defined Pelosi’s later years as Democratic leader is not legislation, but her defense of democracy while it has been under assault ― literally, on Jan. 6, and figuratively throughout the Trump era. In her floor speech this week, Pelosi described the Capitol building as “a temple of our Democracy, of our Constitution, of our highest ideals.” And from day one, she recognized Trump as different from his Republican predecessors. Whatever her differences with them about policy, she never doubted their fealty to the most basic principles of democracy.

There were times that many in her party thought she was going too far or not far enough to fight Trump. (Her reluctance to impeach him in 2019 is a major focus of a new book by Rachael Bade and Karoun Demirjian.) But Pelosi’s feelings about Trump and what he represented were no secret, and maybe no single moment better captured them than a video clip from a documentary that her daughter, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, was making about Jan. 6.

In the footage, an aide informs Pelosi that Trump isn’t coming to the Capitol building, as he’d told his followers he would do. After looking out the window and seeing the horde of insurrectionists approach from Pennsylvania Avenue, Pelosi says: “I hope he comes. I’m going to punch him out. I’ve been waiting for this. For trespassing on the Capitol grounds. I’m going to punch him out. And I’m going to go to jail, and I’m going to be happy.”

Pelosi’s threat to strike Trump got all the attention afterward, but it was just as notable that she mentioned accepting the consequences of assaulting a president ― i.e., going to jail.

As angry as she was, she still believed in the rule of law.

A Transition And A Legacy

Pelosi’s second tenure as speaker was going to reach its end this year, even if she stayed on as leader, because Republicans will take control of the House in January. But she leaves the caucus in about as strong a position as it could be without controlling the chamber, especially given the difficulty that current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is likely to face as he attempts to manage a wafer-thin majority that includes the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Suffice to say that few people in politics think McCarthy has the skills of Pelosi, let alone the spine.

McCarthy was not on the House floor Thursday for Pelosi’s announcement, and neither were most Republicans. Maybe that was a function of scheduling circumstances, and maybe it wasn’t. Either way, it’s a sign of the times and how the Republican Party has changed since the days when Bush saluted her with such grace.

As for the Democrats, a succession plan is in place. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, will head up a new team of leaders who are younger than Pelosi and her lieutenants. They have been waiting for this opportunity, and many Democrats think the transition to a new generation is, if anything, overdue.

But Pelosi is keeping her congressional seat. It’s not difficult to imagine her continued presence in the House, as such a knowledgeable and revered leader, undermining the new team’s authority — especially if they end up striking a different balance between idealism and pragmatism than Pelosi might have.

Or it could work out well. She said Thursday that she wouldn’t be requesting committee assignments. “I have no intention of being the mother-in-law in the kitchen,” she remarked. And so far, at least, the transition plan hasn’t provoked much controversy.

That would not be possible without unity in the caucus — about purpose as well as personnel. It’s the kind of resolve that Pelosi maintained throughout her tenure and a big reason why her record may look even more impressive with time.

how nancy pelosi shaped history

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