Former Speaker of the House during the Gilded Age Thomas Brackett Reed once said, “A statesman is a successful politician — who is dead.” It’s hard to call any politician a statesman in their own time; the lone exception in American history is George Washington. Representative Nancy Pelosi isn’t a stateswoman by any measure, but her tenure in the House was consequential, both for good and bad.
Pelosi will go down in history as the first woman to climb the “greasy pole” of American politics, as Disraeli called it. She’s the first female Speaker of the House and helped usher in an era where women jumped into politics in the post-Watergate age. Her entry into Congressional politics in 1987 marked the end of the last great Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. He served ten consecutive years in the office from 1977 to 1987, a record.
Pelosi took over the House Democratic caucus in 2002, leading it for the next two decades. She held the speakership for eight years in that two-decade run of prominence. From 2002 to the present, she has to be held partially responsible for the degeneration of national politics.
Pelosi advances power politics.
Under Pelosi’s leadership, we witnessed a shift from policy-making as a form of bipartisan negotiations to pure exercises of political power. Nowhere was this more apparent than the passage of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Pelosi infamously remarked when asked about the law during negotiations: “We have to pass the bill…so you can find out what’s in it.”
Andrew Ferguson took this apart in the Washington Free Beacon:
With a single stroke, a mere 14 words, Pelosi summarized and exposed decades of congressional decrepitude, and moreover identified herself as a satisfied creature of it. The reflexive secrecy, the grandiosity, the servility to parochial interests, the endless longueurs that lulled the public to sleep, followed by blind, frenetic fits of legislative activity before the public’s attention could be roused—she was at once the master of this broken system and its servant, utterly complacent, utterly uninterested in its reform.
Under administrations before Pelosi came to power, it was typical for a White House and the Speaker of the House to work together towards deals on policy goals. Tip O’Neill cut deals with Reagan over various agreements throughout the 1980s. After getting hammered in the 1994 midterms, Bill Clinton pivoted to work with Newt Gingrich and House Republicans, achieving success and re-election.
Democrats over all.
These strategies ended with Pelosi. Her legacy is that all policy-making ends once there’s a divided form of government. That’s not to say Republicans aren’t to blame for this legacy, either. But House Democrats had one leader from 2002 to 2022, while Republicans were comparatively a revolving door in the House and Senate.
In Pelosi’s view, the policies that get enacted are secondary to the party passing them. It’s the very essence of zero-sum politics, which directed Pelosi both as a Speaker and during her time as House Minority Leader.
Nowhere was this more evident than during Pelosi’s two attempts at the impeachment of President Trump. The bar to achieving an impeachment is very high under the US Constitution. Unless the impeaching party has a supermajority in Congress, there’s little chance it will succeed.
In both impeachments, there was a moment where getting Republicans to vote for impeachment was possible. Yet, with both impeachments, when given the option of cobbling together a bipartisan group of people to impeach Trump, Pelosi opted for power politics. It’s the only thing she’s ever known in leadership. Her failure there meant impeachment ended up a loss and benefitted Trump.
A hammer that only found nails.
In a witty turn of phrase, the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board said, “The saying goes that Nancy Pelosi ruled the House of Representatives with an iron fist in a velvet glove, but it was more like an iron fist in an iron glove.” Yet even with that, the Journal adds, “there’s no denying that Mrs. Pelosi has been an effective House leader, the most powerful Speaker in decades.”
On that point, they’re right. Pelosi has been a boon to Republican campaigns for two straight decades. But that’s been true for a reason: Pelosi whipped Democrats into shape over major legislation and got it across the finish line, whether it was better for the country or not. Partisanship drove her every decision.
Pelosi had the strongest speakership and leadership since Tip O’Neill, and none of her Republican contemporaries matched her cunning and ruthlessness. The Wall Street Journal wrote that they hoped that Republicans paid attention and learned from Pelosi. And there are lessons to be learned, no doubt.
Lessons and consequences to learn from.
But there’s a secondary lesson to be learned, too: the perils of zero-sum politics have a lasting impact. There’s an entire generation of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who know nothing but Pelosi’s form of passing legislation. Creating consensus legislation is an impossible endeavor in this mindset.
That is Pelosi’s legacy, a broken Congress that only knows hyper-partisanship. Pelosi met the moment and was an expert in all the tools of that system. She leaves Congress in worse shape than she encountered it, which is saying something when compared to the disaster that was Dennis Hastert.
Hopefully, instead of improving on Pelosi’s partisanship, Congress can shift into more historic norms. There are distinct advantages to the power politics of Nancy Pelosi. Still, she leaves leadership with the drawbacks becoming more apparent every day. Pelosi’s success left Congress in a worse position; that’s not the work of a stateswoman.