How Nancy Pelosi won more votes for Speaker than anyone expected

How Nancy Pelosi won more votes for Speaker than anyone expected
© Greg Nash

The Democratic Caucus vote for Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump's intraparty feuds divide Republicans House leaders need to modernize Congress for the sake of America 4 in 5 Americans say they support net neutrality: poll MORE as Speaker designee is not a done deal, but even her critics begrudgingly admit she knows how to deal. Her 203 votes are more than most Democrats assumed she would receive. Here is how I think she pulled it off. It started the morning after the midterm elections. Fresh from victory, the whispers began that a restless caucus would depose the woman who led them to the majority.

That is when Pelosi changed the narrative. She held a press conference just before 1:30 p.m. that Wednesday in front of a phalanx of American flags in the Rayburn Reception Room in the United States Capitol. The image was clear. She was trumpeting her leadership against the whispers. That moment is one of her key strengths, which is owning the moment.

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For Pelosi, the strategy in every campaign is “owning the ground.“ She uses those words in meetings with candidates and in speeches to activists, supporters, and the caucus. But owning the ground is not just a matter of a campaign field operation. It extends to message as well. On that day, in front of those flags, Pelosi made it clear she was not moving offstage. She was front and center, owning the ground.

Still, opposition had formed on two fronts. One was the “Never Nancy” crowd. There were more than a dozen of them, and they were visible and aggressive. They were absolute in both their desire and confidence to defeat Pelosi. All they were lacking was a named opponent to her.

The second group was the Problem Solvers Caucus. They used their leverage to push for vitally needed reforms to empower the rank and file of the caucus. They wanted to make it easier for newer members to pass bills in committee and on the House floor. They want to encourage consensus between Democrats and Republicans. For them it was not “Never Nancy.” It was the ability to achieve reform “now or never.”

That is where Pelosi got to work. Slowly, strategically, she peeled away layers and levels of resistance. She brought the “undecideds” into her office, asked “what gives?” then managed the give and take. Pelosi responded to the unique priorities of members, one by one. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeCongressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to step down as CBC Foundation chair amid lawsuit Reporter says to expect Capitol Hill to take action on North Carolina's 9th District MORE wanted more action against voter suppression. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineRepublicans defend McCain amid Trump attacks EU fines Google .7B over advertising agreements On The Money: Liberal groups pressure Dems over Trump's tax returns | Top Trump economist says tax cuts powering economy | Trump Jr. slams Theresa May over Brexit delay | Watchdog warns of 'rosy' assumptions in Trump budget MORE needed a stronger voice for progressives. Brian HigginsBrian HigginsKoch-backed group pushes for new limits on Trump's tariff authority Dems offer smaller step toward ‘Medicare for all' Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Powerful House committee turns to drug pricing | Utah governor defies voters on Medicaid expansion | Dems want answers on controversial new opioid MORE reportedly wanted more attention to the issue of more federal infrastructure investments.

Some members wanted the caucus to embrace an ideological position. Others wanted a position with a title. Dozens of needs piled into her office. But the thing about Pelosi is she just wears you down. A woman who sleeps only a few hours a night has all the time in the world to sift and sort, balance and counterbalance conflicting priorities. It is not that she builds a house of cards, it is that she buttresses her house with steel.

Take the Problem Solvers Caucus. Some of their requests could have reduced the newfound powers of Democratic committee chairs. So Pelosi shuttled back and forth, negotiating into the early hours yesterday, until the balance was achieved. The final deal to give rank and file members more influence was announced before the vote for Speaker began.

Finally, Pelosi managed to blunt the momentum of her opponents by the well timed peeling of some of them away from their cadre. She did not let the rebellion gather strength. In fact, we watched them contract. True, 32 Democrats voted “no” yesterday, and Pelosi can only afford to lose 17 Democrats in January. But that is a narrower margin than most assumed.

After the caucus vote, a member who earlier believed Pelosi would lose over 50 votes emailed me: “203 yes votes, 32 no votes. How does she do that?” It is simple. By owning the ground, even when it seems shaky.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is a novelist whose latest book is “Big Guns.” You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael and Facebook @RepSteveIsrael.