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.

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.

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-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib are on the highly visible Government Oversight Committee. The fourth, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, 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 McConnell’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. 

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 Mueller’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 Biden, 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 Obama-Hillary Clinton 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 Pelosi.

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.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Barack Obama Democratic majority Efforts to impeach Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Ilhan Omar Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi political instinct Rahm Emanuel Rashida Tlaib Robert Mueller Speaker of the House the squad

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