At 81, Nancy Pelosi takes on ‘crucial’ election before thinking of retirement

There are several reasons why the Speaker of the US House of Representatives will run for re-election at the November midterms when so many of her colleagues are bowing out

2022 Midterm election
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during a news conference on Capitol Hill on February 9, 2022.SAUL LOEB (AFP)
Amanda Mars

A good handful of images of Nancy Pelosi will go down in history. Not just when she became the first woman to be Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2007, or the time she famously opposed the Iraq War. There are also memorable scenes of the day when she contemptuously tore up her official copy of Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020, or when she banged the gavel as she presided over the votes to formalize two impeachment proceedings against the former Republican president in a little over a year (once in 2019 and again in 2021).

And there are the images of Pelosi, wearing her by now iconic red Max Mara coat, walking out of the White House after having made the president lose his temper at a live televised meeting in 2018; or Pelosi screaming into the phone as she watched a congressional baseball game in September 2021 while simultaneously trying to push forward the stalled infrastructure bill. The bill went through.

Other than Kamala Harris, there has been no other female politician as powerful as Pelosi in all of US history; she is the nation’s third-ranking authority, the House’s Democratic leader, a tireless fundraiser for the party, and a proven champion in the art of getting under Trump’s skin.

But Pelosi’s biography is still written in the present, because at age 81 – she will turn 82 on March 26 – she has decided to run for re-election at the midterm elections in November. In January 2021, when she was re-elected to a new term as Speaker, she promised that it would be her last. Yet she is back in running in what she has termed a “crucial” election. And it is not a cliché: this year the Democrats are fighting to retain their fragile control over the House and the Senate, a fact that will mark the rest of the Joe Biden era and seal the fate of his ambitious reform agenda. “We don’t agonize, we organize. And that is why I am running for re-election to Congress,” said Pelosi in a video announcement on January 25.

Last year, when Pelosi was due to be confirmed to a new term as Speaker, the young representative from New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who symbolizes the new leftist wave on Capitol Hill, said that it was probably time for the veteran politician to go and make way for others, but that those others were perhaps not there yet. “If you create that vacuum, there are so many nefarious forces at play to fill that vacuum with something even worse,” she told The Intercept in December.

White, from an affluent family, deeply religious and raised in the hallways of political power, Pelosi is to many people the purest essence of Washington’s establishment. Yet her career shows that for years, she was one of the most liberal voices within the Democratic Party, and not just over the Iraq War, but also because she was one of the first to support same-sex marriage – even before Barack Obama o Hillary Clinton – and in 1987, when she was first elected to Congress and AIDS was a taboo subject, she became one of the main supporters of HIV research and assistance for AIDS patients.

No one’s going to give you power. You have to seize it
Nancy Pelosi

She is the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro, a congressman, mayor of Baltimore and candidate to the governorship of Maryland. She married young and moved to California with her husband, the financier Paul Pelosi. She had five children, and it was later, at age 46, that she entered politics as a lawmaker for that state.

The journalist Susan Page, author of an excellent biography published this year, Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power, underscores that the Democratic leader is essentially “a pragmatist, but not a centrist.” Her policies are progressive but she also wants to get things done, and she knows that in order for Democrats to control the House of Representatives and the White House they must win not just in liberal districts but in centrist districts as well, notes Page in her book.

Pelosi has been described by several observers as “the most effective speaker in modern history” due to this obsession for getting things done. In 2005 she led the Democratic opposition to pension privatization plans by George W. Bush, waging a guerrilla war with over 1,000 events across the country. The Republicans were forced to withdraw the plan. In 2008, as Speaker of the House, she ensured final approval for a highly unpopular bank bailout. And former president Obama has admitted that without her, he could not have pushed through his historical health reform. Pelosi insisted on seeking universal healthcare, but angered abortion activists by allowing a vote on an amendment that denied public funds for pregnancy terminations.

To Democrats, the “nefarious forces” mentioned by Ocasio-Cortez are now looming over the midterm election, when they could lose control of the lower house. J. Miles Coleman, an analyst at the Center for Politics of the University of Virginia, notes that Pelosi is universally recognized as a great fundraiser for the party and very good at maintaining party discipline, which is very important ahead of the November vote. “They need a strong leader,” he says. “If she retires before, it will convey the feeling that Democrats are leaving because the House of Representatives is a lost cause.”

According to a tally by FiveThirtyEight, a website that conducts opinion poll analysis, as many as 28 House Democrats will not be seeking re-election in November. This does not include Steny Hoyer, 82, the House Majority Leader, or Jim Clyburn, 81, the House Majority Whip. Coleman believes that once she is re-elected in November, Pelosi might leave, triggering a special election to find a replacement. Or she could retire in January, after getting sworn in. That is what the Republican Newt Gingrich did shortly after getting re-elected in 1998.

Pelosi does not stand out for her oratory skills, she is not particularly sharp during interviews, and can be tremendously standoffish when she is displeased by a reporter’s question. But in Congress she has been a stabilizing element at a time of internal convulsion when moderate views had to be reconciled with a new leftist wave eager to lead the way. “No one’s going to give you power. You have to seize it,” she is quoted as saying. Pelosi is one of the Republicans’ favorite villains, which poses a certain risk at the midterms. But after weighing the risks and benefits, the conclusion is that Pelosi needs to fight for votes once more, and if there is something that the daughter of Thomas D’Alesandro is good at, it’s counting. That is also why analysts familiar with her style believe that she will retire in 2023, when there are no more loose ends.

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