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Should she stay or should she go?
There isn’t a whole lot that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., needs to accomplish in her political career. She’s led House Democrats as either speaker or minority leader for a staggering 20 years.
In early 2001, Pelosi became the first woman to ever serve at the top rungs in congressional leadership. Democrats elected Pelosi minority whip. That made her the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House.
The House tapped Pelosi as the first female speaker in 2007 after Democrats flipped the House following 12 years in the minority. Under Pelosi, Democrats passed Obamacare, an economic stimulus package and a host of other measures important to the left before losing control in the 2010 midterms. Yet Pelosi remained as minority leader. Pelosi returned to the speakership when Democrats won the House again in 2018.
“When she leaves, she’ll have left it all on the playing field,” former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., observed about Pelosi.
There are now rumblings as to whether Pelosi is facing her final months in the House Democratic leadership and possibly in Congress.
Her future may hinge on whether Democrats cling to power in the midterms. Political analysts believed Democrats faced staggering losses in House contests this fall. Today, the odds still favor Republicans winning the House, but with a smaller margin than previously predicted.
Pelosi has been oblique about her plans. She is running for re-election to the House this fall. But in mid-November 2020, Pelosi hinted this would be her last term as speaker. Her comments came after Democrats hoped to place restrictions on how long lawmakers could serve in leadership posts.
“There was a move to put limits on the leadership and the chairs of committees. They said they were going to do it. They didn’t do it. But what I said then was whether it passes or not, I will abide by those limits,” said Pelosi.
Pelosi notably didn’t reveal whether she would run for for speaker or leader again at the end of this year.
The speaker told reporters the following: “Don’t make me have to be more specific than that because we never expected to have another term now.”
A reporter followed up, asking if Pelosi was making a “Shermanesque statement.”
In politics, a “Shermanesque statement” is usually a declarative remark. The term is derived from when Gen. William Sherman was asked if he would run for president in 1884. Sherman famously said “I will not accept if nominated and will not run for office.”
Pelosi’s comments on her future were cryptic at best — finally cracking the door open to potentially sticking around.
“I don’t want to undermine any leverage I may have,” said Pelosi.
But some of Pelosi’s plans may depend on whether Democrats retain the majority. Those chances aren’t off the table. But they are slim.
“My experience has always been that Pelosi makes these decisions pretty late in the game,” said former Pelosi chief of staff John Lawrence. “There’s a big difference if you’re in the majority. There’s a difference if you’re in the minority.”
If Democrats hold the House, it will be hard for her members to dislodge Pelosi from the speaker’s suite — if Pelosi aims to stay on. Especially if Democrats prevail against the odds. But, frankly, few really know what might happen with Pelosi. That’s to say nothing of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. All have been at the top of the Democratic leadership ranks for years now.
A younger generation of Democrats is anxious to ascend the leadership ladder: House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Vice Democratic Caucus Chair Katherine Clark, D-Mass., and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
But everyone tiptoes around the possibility of succeeding Pelosi.
“That also involves just doing a delicate dance,” said Pomeroy. “Do you put yourself out prematurely where you look foolish? If you went too late, you’ve lost your moment.”
However, there’s no clear successor to Pelosi.
Rumors swirled that Pelosi was done in 2010 after Democrats lost the House. Republicans shellacked Democrats, picking up a record 63 seats. In fact, Republicans made Pelosi an issue, often morphing Democrats into Pelosi in campaign ads that fall.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) even hung a banner outside its headquarters that said, “Fire Pelosi.” Then, to the shock of some in Washington, the speaker announced she would stick around as minority leader even though Democrats lost the House. No lawmaker had ever gone from being speaker to minority leader since late Speaker Joe Martin, R-Mass., in the mid-1950s.
After Pelosi announced her plans, the RNC unfurled a banner across its headquarters that said, “Hire Pelosi.”
Democrats went through a similar dance in late 2012 after the party failed to regain control of the House.
Even Pelosi’s closest confidantes weren’t sure what Pelosi might do.
This reporter encountered a close friend of the speaker coming out a restroom just before a meeting where Pelosi was expected to announce her plans. The friend said she wasn’t sure what would happen in the meeting. But it was clear the friend had been crying in the restroom, concerned she was about to learn that the Pelosi era was over.
It wasn’t. Pelosi stood pat, running for minority leader again.
“She plays her cards very, very close,” said Lawrence. “People who have been through leadership decisions know that this is not something where you simply present yourself and assume that members of your caucus are going to vote one way or the other. In many of the contests that she’s been involved in leadership, she has to go member by member.”
Pelosi is legendary for her “inside” game, working the Democratic Caucus behind the scenes.
“She’s not great on television. She’s somewhat robotic. She’s somewhat mechanical. She’s not great in public,” said Los Angeles Times political columnist Mark Barabak, who has covered Pelosi for decades. “But she’s really, really good at the things you don’t see. That’s the persuasion. The tending to her members. That’s the vote gathering.”
Pelosi faced a leadership challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, in late 2016. Pelosi forecast she’d secure support of “two-thirds” of her caucus in a closed-door ballot.
The next day, Pelosi won with precisely 67% of the vote.
One can distill Pelosi’s future to this:
If she has the votes, Pelosi likely stays. If she lacks the votes, Pelosi could be done.
When it comes to her future, the things that Pelosi sees behind the scenes will dictate whether she stays or goes.