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2019 political 'person of the year': Nancy Pelosi

I never pay much attention to Time magazine's person of the year. The current choice of the Swedish teenage climate change advocate, Greta Thunberg, seems appropriate given the crisis.

In my world, writing about politics, the choice is easy: Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi, the most powerful House Speaker since, at least, Sam Rayburn 60 years ago.

The skill with which she has handled impeachment, dealing with a mean-spirited often unhinged president, navigated the ideological schisms within her own party to produce an impressive legislative record is the envy of more than a few Republicans who abhor her views.

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Often charming, always tough, more Baltimore-raised D'Alesandro than San Francisco liberal, she was the only politician who could intimidate Rahm Emanuel, Emanuel himself — a Pelosi ally when in the House — once told me. She's not the most articulate, but I've never seen a politician with better political instincts.

It's not natural to gush like this; it has the virtue of being true. 

With a combination of suasion and an iron fist, Pelosi has won close to universal support from her politically disparate caucus.

Those Democrats included 43 new members from Republican-held districts, 31 of whom voted for Trump in 2016. There also is a vocal minority of left-wingers with an unyielding, take-no-prisoners attitude and who command mainstream and social media attention.

Pelosi instructed all committee chairmen to look out for the freshmen, the ones who'd be most vulnerable. She persuaded those newcomers to support progressive legislation countering Republican charges that all Democrats do is investigate Trump. At the end of the session she shrewdly showed you could walk and chew gum at the same time, impeaching Trump one day and enacting a revised North American trade pact the next.

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She backed down a challenge from the ultra-liberals who wanted to impeach the president from day one and adopt a left-wing legislative agenda. She changed the dynamics of the Democrats' health care debate, criticizing the single-payer proposal and calling instead for building on Obamacare.

The velvet glove accompanied the iron fist. The four members of the voluble “Squad” got coveted committee assignments; New York's Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTexas man charged for alleged role in Capitol riots, online death threats to Ocasio-Cortez DC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor MORE, Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyBelfast's Troubles echo in today's Washington Federal government carries out 13th and final execution under Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE of Massachusetts, and Michigan's Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Overnight Energy: EPA rule exempts many polluting industries from future air regulations | Ex-Michigan governor to be charged over Flint water crisis: report | Officials ousted from White House after papers casting doubt on climate science Ex-Michigan governor to be charged over Flint water crisis: report MORE are on the highly visible Government Oversight Committee. The fourth, Minnesota's Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocrats poised to impeach Trump again Pence opposes removing Trump under 25th Amendment: reports Pelosi vows to impeach Trump again — if Pence doesn't remove him first MORE, a staunch advocate for Muslims, is on House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Like most successful legislative leaders, Pelosi is a great enlister, actively involving other members to facilitate a consensus.

The result is passage of hundreds of bills, including major ones like raising the minimum wage, controlling drug prices, campaign finance reform, voting rights protection, protection for immigration "DREAMers," equal pay for women in the workforce and the trade treaty. Most are languishing in Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Kentucky Republican committee rejects resolution urging McConnell to condemn Trump impeachment Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack MORE's Republican-controlled Senate.

It's dealing with Trump where Pelosi’s skills were even more in evidence. She knows he's a bully whose word and beliefs are transactional. She stands up to him and refuses to get down on his level. 

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She handled the impeachment quandary almost perfectly, resisting for most of the year, despite unrelenting pressure from the Democratic left and seemingly impeachable offenses enumerated in Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE's investigation report.

Whatever the merits, Pelosi sensed the politics would backfire and got her caucus to hold off.

Once the story broke about Trump trying to pressure the president of Ukraine to smear former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDC residents jumped at opportunity to pay for meals for National Guardsmen Joe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Biden shouldn't let defeating cancer take a backseat to COVID MORE, a possible 2020 opponent, she moved quickly.

For the next several months she orchestrated the process, tapping the Intelligence Committee instead of the Judiciary panel to conduct the inquiry and framing the case; of those 31 freshman Democrats in districts Trump carried, 30 voted for impeachment.

I've had dozens of interviews with Pelosi over many years, and we have a good, if not close, reporter-politician relationship. In early 2008, in a television interview during the intense Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJoe Biden might bring 'unity' – to the Middle East Extremism in the U.S. military Tom Brokaw retiring from NBC News after 55 years MORE-Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, she told me disputed primaries in Michigan and Florida — crucial for Clinton — couldn't be "dispositive." But in 2010, after the Democrats were shellacked in the midterm elections, I wrote a column arguing that after a big electoral rejection a party had to elect new leaders. For the next year and a half whenever I saw her, she icily stared through me: I got what Rahm had meant.

Fortunately, no one paid attention to that column. Imagine this year for the Democrats without Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus Calls grow for 9/11-style panel to probe Capitol attack Do Democrats really want unity? MORE.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.