Nancy Pelosi is a 78-year-old mother of five and grandmother of eight. Born in Baltimore and raised a Catholic, she has been married to the same man, wealthy investor Paul Pelosi, for 55 years. That thumbnail biography suggests a traditional Italian-American wife and mother who would never seek a high-profile career.
But Pelosi is also a political dynamo, shrewd, indefatigable and tough, as her recent Oval Office sparring match with President Donald Trump showed. She has earned her place at the table -- she’s often the only woman in the room -- and she ought to keep it until she gives it up willingly.
Pelosi served as speaker of the House from 2007 until 2011, the only woman to do so, and she has been minority leader since then. A skilled campaigner and arm-twister, she has likely secured the votes to become speaker again by agreeing to give up the job in 2022.
She deserves the post. She raised millions of dollars to help Democrats secure 40 seats in the November midterm elections. That’s the biggest midterm gain for either party in history, according to NBC News. And she is renowned for her ability to count votes and to keep a fractious Democratic caucus united. Thomas Mann, who studies Congress at the Brookings Institution, has called her the “strongest and most effective speaker of modern times.”
So how did her road to a second speakership become so rocky? Why were there so many House Democrats who stepped out to oppose her? What is the renegades’ complaint?
That has never been clear; her Democratic opponents never laid out persuasive reasons for wanting her out as their leader. But this much is clear: In targeting Pelosi, a tiny group of House Democrats allowed the GOP's sexist slander about her to poison their own views.
Republicans have long held her up as some kind of scary socialist battle-ax (much as they have Hillary Clinton). Within months of her rise to lead the House, GOP strategists were making her the witch of children’s nightmares in their campaign commercials. In the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections, the National Republican Congressional Committee cited Pelosi in 70 percent of its ads, far more than they cited Obama, according to Atlantic Monthly. They found the ads effective because Pelosi is viewed favorably, according to polls, by only about 30 percent of voters.
Now, you have to ask yourself: What would make a Catholic grandmother so unpopular? Could it be that she had the nerve to rise to power and use it well? Is she so disliked because she believes, to misquote an old adage, that a woman’s place is not only in the House, but running it?
Neither Democrat Chuck Schumer, minority leader of the Senate, nor Republican Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader, has drawn that sort of contempt or abuse. There are still powerful currents of sexism running just beneath the surface of public life, tricky waters that are difficult for women to navigate. A woman in a powerful position must not be seen as weak or superficial or lacking strong principles. But, at the same time, she must not be perceived as ambitious or emasculating or, heaven forbid, “bossy” (a word never used to describe a man).
Sadly, some Democrats who know what Republicans are up to when they use ugly stereotypes against Pelosi still cave to the political pressures stirred up by those stereotypes. In 2017, after Democrats lost several special elections for Congress, U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., held a meeting with colleagues to lay out a plan for opposing Pelosi. Among the elections Rice cited was a Georgia seat that Republican Karen Handel won after linking her opponent, Democrat Jon Ossoff, to Pelosi.
“The Republican playbook for the past four election cycles has been very focused, very clear,” Rice told the Atlantic after Ossoff’s defeat. “It’s been an attack on our leader. Is it fair? No. Are the attacks accurate? No. But guess what? They work.”
Maybe not. In November 2018, a Democrat, Lucy McBath, took the seat that Ossoff lost to Handel. If Dems blamed Pelosi for their losses, they ought to credit her for the blue wave that re-took the House. She helped lead the Democrats out of the political wilderness, and they are going to need her shrewd political instincts to counter Trump.