A Leader Without Leading

Nancy Pelosi is an expert at obtaining power. 
But what does she want to use it for?



By Molly Ball

Henry Holt

Nancy Pelosi was upset. Her blitz of cable news appearances as a high-profile counterpart to Donald Trump had taken her to CNN in late April. And Jake Tapper had the temerity to question that which is not typically questioned: Pelosi’s legislative acumen.

Congress had just passed its fourth bill responding to the coronavirus crisis. Republicans wanted more money for forgivable loans for small businesses. Democrats had a host of liberal priorities left out of prior legislation that could have been paired with the extension. But Pelosi and her Senate colleague Chuck Schumer chose to go along with the Republican framework, leaving everything else for later.

Immediately afterward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hit the pause button on future legislation. It felt like the Democrats were played. And governors were sounding alarms about the lack of federal aid to cover massive state and local government revenue shortfalls, which triggered a loss of 1.5 million jobs in April and May alone.

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“Was this a tactical mistake by you and Senator Schumer?” Tapper asked Pelosi.

“Just calm down,” she replied sternly, pivoting to tout getting more small-business money than McConnell even wanted. (As of mid-June, about $130 billion in authorized funding had not been claimed, and a May survey found that half of all small businesses expected to fail, even with federal support.) Pelosi vowed to obtain state and local fiscal relief eventually. “There’s no use going into what might have been.”

It was an interesting exchange, because it highlighted a Pelosi critique that rarely makes it into conventional accounts. Molly Ball’s biography Pelosi emphasizes more-common narratives, which throughout her accomplished career the Speaker has been able to surmount: whether a woman can compete in the typically male terrain of high-stakes politics, or whether she can withstand the caricature of a “San Francisco liberal.”

During the pandemic, Pelosi’s caucus dominance and tactical savvy and leverage over Republican opponents failed her.

Ball, a national reporter for Time, also tries to make the case that Pelosi, underestimated by official Washington, constantly fleeces her foes at the negotiating table. Much of this is true. She stopped a newly re-elected George W. Bush from dismantling Social Security, a strategic masterstroke. Willing the Affordable Care Act forward when Democrats wanted to pull back was a signature achievement. During the interregnum between speakerships when John Boehner and Paul Ryan ran the House, she was consistently relied on for votes when they faltered, protecting liberal social programs and obtaining additional funding. And Pelosi always did it with remarkable caucus discipline, bringing together a disparate set of legislators to strengthen her hand.

But the past few months of hurried legislative output, long after Ball completed her draft, frustrate that analysis. In our endlessly gridlocked politics, real governing occurs mainly in the crucible of crisis, which forces urgent action beyond the usual game of inches. What you do in those moments matters infinitely more than how sassy you look clapping during the State of the Union address, or how you rip up that address after it’s read.

During the pandemic, Pelosi centralized control to an unprecedented degree, placing responsibility for crisis governance entirely in her own hands. Yet the result mainly protects corporate interests while throwing temporary life rafts to everyone else. The caucus dominance and tactical savvy and leverage over Republican opponents failed her in this case. It’s worth wondering why, which is inextricably tied to one question: What does Nancy Pelosi really believe?

OBSERVERS OFTEN ASSUME that, because Pelosi represents San Francisco, she must position herself on the party’s left wing. But that’s not where her politics comes from. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a machine pol, a congressman and later mayor of Baltimore, whose wife maintained a “favor file” to organize which strings needed to be pulled at which city agencies to assist important constituents. She married Paul Pelosi, a college classmate who became a wealthy financier, and while raising five children, stayed connected to politics mostly because her house was big enough to host fundraisers. The early chapters of Ball’s book teem with stories of Pelosi fraternizing with politicians as a donor and converting this into power. Pelosi was Rep. Sala Burton’s chief fundraiser; while stricken with colon cancer, Burton handpicked Pelosi to replace her five days before she died.

AP Photo

In that first race, Pelosi spent $1 million in six weeks, more than all her challengers combined. Confronted by one about buying the election, Pelosi replied, “I don’t think you have to be sick to be a doctor, or poor to understand the problems of the poor.” She did understand the problems of some constituents; Pelosi sent mailers into conservative pockets of San Francisco vowing to “fight all efforts to raise the personal income tax.” She won by fewer than 4,000 votes.

After just two years, Pelosi became the House’s leading fundraiser. Though Ball insists that Pelosi’s money and connections were “camouflage for a revolutionary soul,” there’s little evidence of this. In the book, Pelosi names her top political motivation as “concern for the world’s children,” an almost perfectly nondescript concept.

Early in her House career, Pelosi took a vocal role in tackling the AIDS crisis and condemning China’s human rights record. She is to be commended for both stances, though they also can both be seen as nods to large constituencies back home. But issues don’t quite animate her; Pelosi’s eye was always on leadership. And she’s extremely good at mustering her caucus, often through a palpable rule-by-fear approach. Time and again in the book, House Democrats shrink from crossing her, mindful that Pelosi’s grudge will endure. This discipline provides the kind of leverage that defeats opponents, especially ones as inept as the Republicans she has faced.

But Pelosi getting famously fractious Democrats to consistently vote her way, while no mean feat, matters less than what she gets them to vote for.

WHEN THE CORONAVIRUS SPREAD and lockdowns buckled the economy, Republicans knew exactly what they wanted—protect large corporations and investors—and pursued it unerringly. Pelosi had no coherent agenda to fall back on. She’d spent the past year advancing complex, multifaceted bills and watching them wither in Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard.

H.R. 1, the House’s signature legislation during this Congress, which attempted to nationalize voter registration, establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions, add ethics standards to the Supreme Court, add a voluntary public-financing option for campaigns, require presidents to release tax returns, disclose donors for super PACs, make Election Day a holiday, and about 20 other things in a single bill, is a perfect example of this syndrome. There’s no single narrative to grab onto, just a mélange of advocacy group–approved planks. This left House leadership unprepared as the pandemic began its march.

History reveals that economic and social crises reflect badly on the party in the White House, not the legislative opposition. There was leverage, which Ball notes is Pelosi’s favorite word, to make real and lasting demands for coronavirus relief: forgiveness on consumer debts or rental payments, federal benefits that automatically expand when the jobless rate rises, massive long-term infrastructure spending. An embattled Trump facing a perilous re-election might have agreed to plenty to prevent economic disaster. If politics is the art of the possible, then in this moment possibilities were bursting. But Pelosi, nevertheless, hesitated.

Sipa USA via AP

When some economists advised sending every American a check, Pelosi shot that down, arguing against money for millionaires. This culminated in a means-tested $1,200 stimulus payment. You only got the money if your earnings were under $100,000 per year, based on earnings data as far back as 2018. This deprived people who subsequently may have lost their job from getting relief.

A separate legislative response purported to provide sick leave to workers, except employers with more than 500 workers and those with fewer than 50 were exempted from the requirement. When asked about this, Pelosi said large employers should provide sick leave themselves, without government subsidies (workers needing paid time off might not have minded). Meanwhile, several legislative efforts promised free COVID-19 testing for all, but the health care industry has managed to find loopholes there too: Reporters keep finding people paying thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, while Pelosi took the lead on the initial, smaller bills, she allowed Mitch McConnell to write the vehicle for economic relief, known as the CARES Act. McConnell casually drew up a $4.5 trillion “money cannon” corporate bailout, which rapidly rescued the investor class before it was even spent. Who drafts the baseline legislation makes a big difference: If Pelosi had written the CARES Act, it could have included such ideas from her caucus as government-provided payroll support, increased food stamps, guaranteed vote-by-mail to ensure voting rights during the pandemic, significant state and local aid, free coronavirus treatment, assistance for the U.S. Postal Service (which may go belly-up come September), a national contact tracing program, and much more. Instead, they just got to tweak McConnell’s work, without altering its tilt toward the powerful.

Relief for individuals, like the one-time stimulus checks and boosts to unemployment insurance, was clumsily implemented and, most important, temporary. Pelosi and Schumer touted stringent corporate-bailout oversight, but Trump fired the inspectors general charged with monitoring it, and Pelosi and McConnell spent months failing to name a chair of the only entity Trump couldn’t meddle with, the Congressional Oversight Commission.

These failures were Pelosi’s alone. She deliberately slowed allowing members to vote remotely or through a proxy while lawmakers were locked down at home. Because of this, during the crucial months of March and April, Pelosi became a one-woman House of Representatives, unilaterally writing legislation or negotiating with Republicans, and presenting the finished product to House members, take it or leave it. This effectively disenfranchised hundreds of millions of Americans and limited the Democratic Caucus to issuing press releases while Pelosi did the work of governing. But this power grab wasn’t put toward anything resembling a clear goal.

After four bills passed, Pelosi got around to putting together a bill, the HEROES Act, which included all of the important pieces she deferred in other legislation. But by this time, Republicans had their corporate bailout and could ignore further efforts. The HEROES Act was another unfocused wish list, which Democratic leaders telegraphed as a messaging bill to set up future negotiations. As of press time, those negotiations hadn’t begun.

The bill also included random giveaways. It extended small-business grants to K Street lobbyists, even though lobby firms were still as busy as ever trying to win perks for their clients. This would amount to Congress donating to the groups that devise campaigns intended to influence them, and as former members often gravitate to K Street, would have lawmakers handing over money to their future employers, which is about as corrupt as you can get.

UNDERLYING THIS ALL, incredibly in the midst of a crisis, was a Pelosi tendency that had grown over the years: obsessive concern with deficits. Pelosi rolled back student debt relief in the HEROES Act after learning that it would cost $100 billion more than expected. This was a $3.2 trillion messaging bill not designed to become law, yet an additional 3 percent cost was considered unacceptable. Pelosi also declined to add “automatic stabilizers” that would maintain expanded benefits until economic stress dissipated, blaming a Congressional Budget Office scoring quirk that made the cost appear artificially larger.

So with over 30 million out of work, the important thing to Pelosi was that her pie-in-the-sky, going-nowhere bill was “reasonable,” based on some ineffable standard of reason. It matches the worldview of a Democratic leader who, just two years ago, made a lugubrious elegy on the House floor after the death of Pete Peterson, who bankrolled the deficit hysteria industry for decades and relentlessly targeted Social Security for cuts. (Ball does reveal that Pelosi told Obama during his “grand bargain” talks that she would support his aims, “even if it meant agreeing to entitlement cuts.”)

Devotion to deficit hawkery in normal times is unwise policy. It’s downright fatal during an economic crisis, where relief could be yanked away from needy families prematurely simply because of an unwillingness to challenge CBO’s scoring model. But here we finally see the contours of Pelosi’s governing framework, not just on the budget, but on everything.

Pelosi believes that the nation’s resources are scarce, and what sadly passes for the modern welfare state must be protected at all costs, rather than raised to greater heights. The goal is, at best, a less bad world than Republicans want. It’s a defensive crouch dating back to Pelosi’s initial entry into Congress under President Reagan, and it has dominated her thinking ever since.

Progressives who dream too big are to be sat in a corner, and anti-government conservatives are to be bargained with and mollified. Official Washington’s approval is craved. Pelosi hosts an annual ideas conference at her own vineyard for a group of elite donors. That’s who gets to scale the fortress she has built around her desiccated ambitions. Her thoughts today on activism date back to something she said during her first campaign: “Someday they will realize just how insignificant they are.”

Pelosi demands total control; you can argue that she never groomed a successor for this purpose, to keep everyone reliant on her. She finds this to be the best method to gain leverage over the legislative process. But to what end is this leverage employed? Pelosi fights intensely to obtain power, but she seems to consider power so fragile and fleeting that it shouldn’t be used for very much.

Democrats captured the House in the 2018 midterms on a promise to counter Trump’s lawlessness and corruption. Yet today we have an unchecked kleptocracy, with very little sustained oversight coming from the House. Trump’s wars were not discontinued and his border camps were not shut down; even his border wall, which caused a prolonged government shutdown in 2019, was still funded through repurposing military money, something the House has never attempted to reverse.

Now, we have a crisis recovery limited to the wealthy and connected, threatening economic disaster for ordinary people. Leverage for a better solution was squandered. John Boehner was an incompetent leader, but even in divided government, he succeeded in his caucus’s primary aim of cutting spending. During his tenure, public investment fell to its lowest portion of GDP since Eisenhower. Pelosi is clever and sharp, yet astonishingly little has changed.

Pelosi’s deal to gain the Speaker’s gavel a second time requires her to step down after 2022. If Joe Biden wins the election, and Democrats gain a governing trifecta, she’ll have one final chance to write her legacy. The circumstances dictate a far different course than she appears capable of steering. The past 40 years have seen endless stagnant wages, sinking economic mobility, collapsing trade unionism, and soaring income and wealth inequality, to say nothing of even more enduring structural racism and the persistent Black-white wealth gap.

A desperate need for solutions has shifted the policy orientation of the party to the left. Throwing a little charity at society’s losers while tending to moneyed interests doesn’t cut it anymore, especially since the twin crises of coronavirus and George Floyd’s death exposed America’s essential inadequacies. Change can build from the bottom, but leaders must translate into policy those cries for action. Will Nancy Pelosi, cloistered in her office, hear them? 

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