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Society

What's Next for Nancy Pelosi

A number of the 30-plus Democrats newly elected to Congress last week gave their campaigns a boost by vowing that, come hell or high Maxine Waters, they’d never support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Others hedged by saying they were at least open to new leadership, which always sounds sensible when no plausible new leader has actually emerged. A handful of returning Democratic incumbents have gone on record promoting the same idea, although they’ve also got more practice than the newbies do at turning tail when the boss’s glare turns icy enough to freeze vodka.

Pelosi’s party has just racked up its biggest gains in the House since the Watergate babies of 1974 rode the surfboard of Richard Nixon’s undoing into office. Yet the winter of Democratic discontent with her was and is more than a campaign snow job. Is it because she’s literally half a century older than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Because she took her first turn wielding the Speaker’s gavel the year Keeping Up With The Kardashians premiered? Because not too many people in public life not named Nancy Pelosi can remember where they were when Franklin D. Roosevelt died?

Pelosi’s age (she’s 78) and Capitol Hill longevity (she arrived toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term) aren’t the deepest reasons for the Democrats’ restlessness at the image of her running the show for the next two years. Still, the optics do a dandy job of illustrating more substantial grievances. Like her equally unlovable Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, Pelosi has strived to keep up an appearance of business as usual in Washington when Donald Trump’s presidency has made everything unusual. Maybe desperate times call for desperate measures, but Nancy Pelosi doesn’t do desperate.

The party’s young Turks think she’s too conventional and not enough of an insurrectionist to suit them. Meanwhile, swing-district moderates in states that Trump won have bought into the conservative caricature of Pelosi as a flaming liberal. Whether or not they genuinely believe it’s true, they’re glumly aware of how successful the GOP has been at imprinting that view of her on voters’ minds.

Under other circumstances, a Speaker who can keep all of her party’s competing factions in an identical state of mild dissatisfaction might seem ideally suited to the job. Even in the volatile Trump era, Pelosi’s steely institutionalist bent has prevented any one tendency among House Democrats from getting the upper hand. Except for her fellow, unfashionable, geriatric Capitol Hill lifers, however, nobody is in much of a mood to see that as a virtue. The Trumpified GOP doesn’t have a monopoly on devaluing expertise and craving blowups, and an added complication in Pelosi’s case is that the dividing line on the Democrats’ side of the aisle is so starkly generational.

Pelosi has already said that she expects to be a “transitional Speaker,” which sounds like more bargaining to delay the inevitable changing of the guard.

Another drawback in selling herself to the newbies is that virtually everything she’s good at—her fund-raising prowess, her tactical smarts, her mastery of process—is only on display behind closed doors. (It would be ineffective if it wasn’t.) As the public face of the Democratic Party, however, which is the role she’ll go on sharing with Schumer until the party chooses its 2020 nominee, she’s often the worst of both worlds, by which we mean that she can seem typecast and miscast simultaneously.

Pelosi projects an insulation from average Americans’ concerns that she seldom even tries to remedy. It’s not that she doesn’t care about their problems; thinking hard about other people’s bread-and-butter worries has been her own bread and butter for most of her adult life. But as one of the richest people in Congress, she all too obviously doesn’t share them. Starting with her plummy voice, her TV demeanor radiates the sort of quasi-patrician aloofness that can leave viewers guessing she’d probably put caviar on her hot dog at a ball game if she thought nobody was looking.

Yet unlike, say, Mitt Romney’s, her effect doesn’t register as privilege for privilege’s sake so much as a highly developed sense of her own professional standing—which is, unfortunately for her, gratingly out of synch with the times. She can’t help conveying that she thinks Capitol Hill being dominated by political lifers is good news for the country, and she’s fiercely proud to occupy a top rung that she also considers her due. Her sense of humor, to the stunted extent she has one, revolves around reminding people that she’s a brainy pro contending with a horde of feckless, naïve amateurs. In the deepest recesses of her mind, the latter category seems to include not only most liberal activists, but most voters, or maybe just anybody who’s never been elected to Congress.

All this feeds into the Fox News-fueled image of Pelosi as the Left Coast’s preening version of one of Downton Abbey’s more clueless bluebloods. But it’s worth remembering that San Francisco’s posher neighborhoods had very little to do with forging her identity. As a political creature, Pelosi is a pure product of Baltimore, whose mayor became her father when Nancy was seven years old. Earlier, Thomas D’Alesandro had served four terms in Congress, the arena his daughter chose to make her life’s calling. Back then, Maryland politics weren’t renowned for their Chardonnay-sipping innocence. Pelosi grew up in one of the most hard-headed schools of pragmatic Democratic politics in America, and it would be foolish to imagine she’s forgotten a single lesson.

If the incoming Congress were to follow up canning Pelosi by making Trump’s impeachment its top priority, the most likely result would be to improve Trump’s chances of re-election in 2020.

Barring a major cataclysm, anyone who thinks she won’t be the next Speaker of the House is probably living in a dream world. One source of discomfiture for incoming Democrats, particularly the newly elected female members, is that they’d be ousting the first woman Speaker in history—and one who can claim, not unreasonably, that at least some of the hostility she attracts is fueled by sexism.

Their real disadvantage, though, is that they’d be challenging one of the wiliest Capitol Hill operators around. An expert at triage, Pelosi is unlikely to be at a loss for ways to thwart her intramural opposition while making a few not-quite-token concessions to the new-broom impulse animating them. That could include creating a new tier of junior leadership that both placates the insurgents and gives them some valuable seasoning while she and her fellow old coots—78-year-old Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn and 79-year-old Democratic whip Steny Hoyer—get one last crack at ruling the roost.

Pelosi has already said that she expects to be a “transitional Speaker,” which sounds like more bargaining to delay the inevitable changing of the guard. But it’s also a perfectly meaningless formula, which typifies her shrewdness. (Willingly or not, every Speaker is a transitional Speaker sooner or later.) Besides, she can make a good case that a Democratic caucus whose first order of business is getting rid of her will make the party’s new House majority look like a pack of reckless firebrands right off the bat.

Of course, that’s exactly what a sizable chunk of the liberal base wants them to be, without much regard for the value of strategic cunning. If the incoming Congress were to follow up canning Pelosi by making Trump’s impeachment its top priority, the most likely result would be to improve Trump’s chances of re-election in 2020 after acquittal in the Senate left him vindicated and triumphant. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who calls Trump’s impeachment a “no-brainer” either hasn’t figured that out or else doesn’t care. Pelosi knows it as surely as she knows the Pope’s religion or the toilet habits of bears in the woods.

The passion Trump arouses among the liberals who loathe him is ultimately foreign to her nature. But fencing with Trump successfully for the next two years will also require guile, cold-blooded calculation, and Capitol Hill know-how, and those are Pelosi’s specialties. She’s often at her most tin-eared when she’s feeling brazen, and she was certainly both when she told PBS on Election Day, “Not that any of us is indispensable, but I think I’m really the best person for the job.” Whether the 116th Congress’s incoming Democrats like it or not, she may very well be right—for now.