As Nancy Pelosi winds down her nearly two-decade tenure as the leader of House Democrats, including four terms as Speaker of the House, it is important to examine her time in leadership and learn from it.
In many respects, Speaker Pelosi has been one of the most powerful leaders ever to hold the gavel. In the political arena, her foes have used her as a bogeyman of liberal politics, pushing her image in campaign commercials, radio ads, and direct mail. While Republicans have vilified her because of her political views and the policies she has pushed to passage, they missed an opportunity to learn from a role model. Any politician, regardless of party or ideology, should look to Nancy Pelosi as a leader to emulate. You don’t need to be a San Francisco liberal to emulate her success in keeping House colleagues in line, raising huge sums of money for reelection, supporting candidates who will be team players, holding at bay resistance from within the ranks, and operating strategically with Senate leaders and presidents from the same or different parties.
She has kept in line a sometimes-fractured House Democratic Caucus. Over time, the diversity of that caucus has ranged from Blue Dog moderate Democrats like Ron Kind (Wisc.), former representative and now Republican Gene Taylor (Miss.), and Heath Shuler (N.C.), to the original members of the proudly progressive squad of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.). From the leadership elections held in advance of the 108th Congress (2003-2005), to what is now her final term as Speaker in the 117th Congress (2021-2023), she has never lost a leadership fight and rarely lost a legislative battle.
When Nancy Pelosi needed to find votes, they were found. When disagreements were waged within her caucus, they were settled. When she had room to let more moderate or more progressive members vote no on legislation they opposed, they voted no.
Her tenure by the numbers shows remarkable strength and power. At nearly 13,000 days in office, she is the second longest serving woman in the history of the U.S. House. She served as Democratic leader for 10 consecutive congresses (108th-117th), a tenure that will fall about a year short of Sam Rayburn’s record of just over 21 years. When the 118th Congress is sworn in in January, she will be the fifth longest serving Speaker of the House of Representatives in history. And, over the past 20 years, she raised over $1 billion dollars for Democrats’ electoral efforts.
She has overseen the passage of landmark legislation as Speaker, from the Affordable Care Act to legislation that saved the American economy—twice—at the start of the Great Recession and the recession associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the darkest days of House history—the assassination attempts of Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Steve Scalise (R-La.) and the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021—she stood resolutely with Democratic and Republican colleagues condemning such violence, not as a leader of the Democratic Party, but as a Congressional leader.
Whether you agree with her politics or not, it is undeniable that she has been a remarkably effective House leader. That success has come as both House Minority Leader and as Speaker of the House. As Speaker, she has worked with a majority as large as 81 seats in November and December 2009 (258-177) and one as small as 6 seats from April to May 2021 (218-212). Some former rivals have admired her strength. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said, “You could argue she’s been the strongest speaker in history. She has shown more capacity to organize and muscle, with really narrow margins, which I would’ve thought impossible.”
Her effectiveness, staying power, and liberal politics has made her a political target on the right. On January 6, as violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, several were heard chanting “Where’s Nancy?” and video captured others making threats on her life. And recently a man broke into her San Francisco home allegedly planning to attack the Speaker, and violently assaulted her husband.
Whether Kevin McCarthy or someone else is the next Speaker of the House, the best path to success would be to become a conservative version of Nancy Pelosi. Some Republican leaders like Steve Scalise have managed civil relationships and/or strong working relationships with Democratic leaders like Steny Hoyer and even Speaker Pelosi. The same is true for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who by all accounts has a genuine respect for what Speaker Pelosi has accomplished. However, most other Republicans have forged a path of disdain and indignation for Pelosi rather than disagreement while learning by example. Failure to see her as a model for success will be the downfall of future Republican and Democratic leaders.
Several years ago, I moderated an event at which former Speaker Dennis Hastert spoke (prior to his legal troubles and downfall). He was asked what working with a president of the other party was like and he said he was always impressed with how President Clinton could compartmentalize politics, calling to negotiate budget matters on the same day the Senate was holding his impeachment trial. He said that Clinton knew that if he sulked about politics, it would be a barrier to his own success on policy. Unfortunately, gone are the days where many elected officials can disagree with their opponents on policy and politics, but respect and even admire them on process and procedure.
The U.S. House may never see another leader as capable and agile as Nancy Pelosi, but every Speaker from here forward should—above anything else—strive to replicate her leadership. Those who don’t will certainly be a footnote in a history in which Speaker Pelosi will forever be the lede.