The Case for Nancy Pelosi's Staying Put

Republicans are celebrating and many Democrats bemoaning Nancy Pelosi's effort to remain in her party's leadership after the crushing midterms. But she may end up having the last laugh, yet again

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Alex Brandon / AP

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waits to speak to supporters at an election-night party in Washington on Nov. 2, 2010

Nancy Pelosi's desire to stay on as the leader of the House Democrats is understandable and, in a way, justified. For more than half a decade, she consistently displayed toughness and a gift for intraparty consensus-building. Before Tuesday, almost without fail, she accomplished her party's main goals.

In 2005 and 2006, Pelosi's job was to recapture the House majority, and she did that. In 2007 and 2008, her job was to use her historic role as the nation's first female Speaker to create an issues contrast with Republicans and help get a Democrat elected to succeed George W. Bush. She also did that. In 2009 and 2010, her job was to navigate the ideological and geographic shoals of her caucus to fulfill the major legislative agenda of an ambitious new President, while accommodating the requirements of the more centrist forces in the U.S. Senate. She did that too.

Along the way, Pelosi proved yet again that she is one of the best fundraisers in the country's history, inspiring both the party's grass roots and major donors. She reliably made fools out of those who underestimated her.

In the aftermath of the midterm elections, as Democrats search for a revival path, more than a few believe that the answer to the party's problems isn't to abandon their message and bend to Republican demands but to stand up and fight whenever they feel that the new House majority is acting against the interests of middle-class families and in favor of corporate special interests. Pelosi's supporters maintain she has demonstrated that she can capably challenge the GOP and protect her party's core principles. She has beaten Republicans twice before, suggesting she can beat them again. Pelosi loyalists believe she has earned the right to stay on as the top Democrat in the House if that is what she wants to do.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. asked Pelosi why the GOP designated her the face of alleged liberal overreach. "Because I'm effective," she replied, noting the absence of past targets Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. "They had to put a stop to me because we were effective in passing health care reform, which the health-insurance industry wanted to stop; Wall Street reform, which Wall Street wanted to stop; [and reform of] students loans for taking the money out of the banks and giving it back to the taxpayer and to families."

So Pelosi is ready to fight on and defend the record that led — along with the unemployment rate — to the biggest House rout in generations. Meanwhile, Republicans can barely contain their glee at her unexpected decision. Politicians frequently affect tones of surprise or satisfaction to spin the media or embellish a point, but in this case, the amazed delight of leading conservatives is genuine. The person they demonized throughout the cycle and featured prominently in their advertising and rhetoric will remain, with her bull's-eye intact, they believe. The aggressive campaign chant "Fire Pelosi!" has been replaced by the snide taunt "Hire Pelosi!"

Many Democrats, too, are incredulous that she plans to stay put after the overwhelming repudiation of the leadership policies of the Pelosi-Obama–Harry Reid Washington triumvirate. Following such a resounding loss, political insiders, the press, the pundits and the public all expect an acknowledgement of accountability; Pelosi's refusal to take the fall flouts the fundamental rule of "party first" and suggests Democrats are oblivious to the meaning of the election results.

But Pelosi apparently sees no need for self-sacrifice now, and her calculations may be shrewd in the long term. In these next lively few months, with the focus on Obama, incoming Speaker John Boehner, other Republican majority players and an increasingly active group of 2012 presidential prospects, that Pelosi bull's-eye may not glow so brightly. From the shadows of the minority, the Gentle Lady from California can plot twin comebacks — for her party and for herself.

One Nation, Halperin's politics column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.