Nancy Pelosi must defy odds to retain her post as Speaker

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is arguably facing the longest odds of her storied political career. (See blowout poll)

Most political analysts believe a Republican tidal wave in the midterm election next Tuesday will sweep away her Speakership along with the Democratic majority.

But people close to Pelosi say she relishes the challenge of having people count her out.

The liberal San Francisco Democrat grabbed the House gavel four years ago after riding a wave of voter anger against President George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress.

Now much of the anger directed at Washington is instead turned on the majority Democrats, with conservatives and some independents rallying around the cry of “Fire Pelosi.”

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Throughout her career, Pelosi has beaten the odds. Some thought Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) would defeat her in their legendary 2001 leadership race. Then skeptics said a woman representing San Francisco would never lead Democrats out of the minority.

And after she secured the top House job as the first female Speaker in history, Pelosi’s efforts to pass bills on war funding, healthcare reform and climate change sometimes appeared to be doomed. And yet she managed to pass all of them through the lower chamber.

Now political observers note that to save her Speakership, Pelosi will not only need a majority but would have to retain at least 225 seats in the Democratic column; that is, limit the Republicans to a pickup of 32 seats.

Pelosi has repeatedly voiced her confidence that Democrats will keep their House majority. Does she know something others don’t? Or is her optimism no more than pre-election bravado to keep spirits up and save a few seats?

Either way, more than a dozen House Democrats have indicated they may not vote for Pelosi as Speaker next year even if the party retains the majority.

But those who know her well say Pelosi should not be counted out.

“No Speaker has had the same vision and tenacity in the face of insurmountable odds,” said former Rep. Tom Downey (D-N.Y.), now a lobbyist at the Downey McGrath Group.

Ronald Peters, who co-wrote a book titled Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics, said Pelosi is a “task-oriented person” who has a laser-like focus on preparing her colleagues to survive the wave that is coming Nov. 2.

Former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), a lobbyist at Cassidy and Associates, said, “She’s not afraid of the fight.”

Pelosi has said over the years that she loves campaigning, but the battle she is waging this election cycle is like no other she has ever faced.

She knew she would be playing defense in 2010 after picking up 30 seats in 2006 and another 24 in 2008.

Still, today’s strong headwinds buffeting Democrats were not anticipated 20 months ago. And Pelosi is being hit by more friendly fire than ever before.

Conservative Democrats are openly criticizing her, which Pelosi has said she doesn’t mind if it helps them get reelected.

She is crisscrossing the country, raising money for her caucus colleagues. She is also absorbing information from a variety of sources, talking to gubernatorial candidates, grassroots activists and others at the local level. She passes on relevant information to her colleagues, who can use the intelligence strategically while deferring to Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) on key decisions regarding individual races.

Russo said much of Pelosi’s attention a week before the election is focused on closing the enthusiasm gap between the parties, asserting that if the liberal base shows up next week, Democrats will retain their majority.

Nearly six months ago, The Hill interviewed a buoyant Pelosi right after Democrats won the special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).

She criticized Republicans for their “anti-Obama, anti-Pelosi” message, and said, “One thing I know for sure is that Democrats will retain their majority in the House of Representatives.”

The Speaker is sticking by her prediction, though she doesn’t have much company. Nonpartisan election analysts claim it’s highly probable that the GOP will be running the House in 2011. Intrade.com, a website that takes wagers on politics, places the chances of the House flipping at nearly 90 percent.

Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman, said, “The Speaker’s focus is on Democrats winning the election and retaining their majority, which we will.”

In 2004, Pelosi misread the political tea leaves, guaranteeing that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) would win the presidency. After his defeat, Pelosi acknowledged she had put her credibility on the line and was “stunned” that George W. Bush was reelected.

In recent weeks, Pelosi’s friends and associates have increasingly talked in a way that suggests they are bracing for a massive Republican wave. They have said Pelosi’s legacy has been clearly established and argued that losing the House would not be her fault.

Some Pelosi confidants blame the White House; others pinpoint the Senate. Regardless, if the House flips, Pelosi would be second-guessed, most notably for pushing a controversial climate change bill that had little chance of passing the Senate.

Peters called that move “strategically miscalculated,” while the Speaker's defenders point out that addressing global warming has long been her flagship issue. She knew healthcare reform would take a long time to pass and surmised that energy legislation needed to pass the House first if it was going to have any chance of becoming law.

Still, as Peters notes, climate change is not a priority for voters.

The biggest mistake made by Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, political observers say, was failing to focus on the ailing economy to the exclusion of other distractions in 2009.

After Democrats passed their $787 billion economic stimulus package, they homed in on healthcare for the rest of 2009. And the public soured on the stimulus as unemployment soared.

In an interview with Rolling Stone after President Obama signed the stimulus law, Pelosi said, “We will be accountable. We will answer for this legislation one year from now … We won’t say, ‘Well, that’s just the economy’s fault.’ No, we will be accountable for the decisions that we make.”

Pelosi has been one of the most powerful Speakers ever, and at 70 she might want to spend more time with her grandchildren than return as the top Democrat in the House minority.

Downey said Pelosi is well-aware of the predictions of her demise.

“She misses nothing,” Downey said. “But she is so optimistic and refuses to resign herself to defeat even for a moment.”

That drive, coupled with her fundraising prowess, prompts some people in the capital to believe Pelosi will not fade away if Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) becomes Speaker.

If Republicans retook the House, Pelosi would likely have enough support among liberals to overcome any opposition within her caucus to becoming the chamber’s top Democrat.

Hoyer, who is now the No. 2 Democrat in the House, has said he will never run against Pelosi again.

“She would have progressives behind her,” Peters said. “The question is: Does she want to do it? The minority in the House is a lonely place to be.”

Obama will likely be moving more to the right next year and listening less to House liberals. And Pelosi fought those types of battles when President Clinton triangulated after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.

Pelosi was not shy in speaking out against Clinton initiatives on trade and the Pentagon’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, among others.