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Running to Win
When the house democrats went to a Pennsylvania resort for their annual retreat in the winter of 2001, however, Pelosi showed up with a PowerPoint presentation. She was there to teach her fellow Democrats how to win back the majority they had lost in the Republican revolution of 1994. Pelosi had been convinced it was in reach in November 2000, when they needed only seven seats to oust the Republicans from power. She felt that she had delivered what she promised in California, where Democrats picked up five seats. But in the rest of the country, they lost three, which left them pretty much back where they started. The party needed a strong national message, she said, and more emphasis on the fundamentals of grass-roots organizing on the ground.
No one paid much attention. "There was a time here in Congress when we thought that if you [advertised] on TV long enough, you would win," Miller recalls. "Everybody was enamored with their TV consultants." Pelosi could feel the dismissiveness from the House Democratic leadership, which hadn't added a new face to its top echelon in nearly a decade. "It wasn't well received at first," she recalls. "People thought, 'That's her way. That's not the way we do things here.' But [I thought], You lose. And I know how to win."
It turned out there were others plenty of them in the House rank and file who felt the way she did. Or who, at least, were grateful enough, in the Albemarle Street tradition, for the millions of dollars she had raised for their campaigns. Pelosi had been collecting chits for a couple of years in preparation for a bid for a leadership slot, planning her campaign for it in quiet dinners with allies. In 2001 she beat Maryland's Hoyer for the job of House Democratic whip; within a year, she was Democratic leader. To some, the ascension of a liberal San Francisco Democrat seemed the articulation of a death wish, a ticket to latte-sipping oblivion. "Are the Democrats about to go insane?" asked David Brooks in the conservative Weekly Standard.
But Pelosi was determined that she would lead the party out of its wilderness and back into the majority. She started in December 2004 by tapping, over the objections of more senior Democrats, a relative newcomer to head her campaign operation: an abrasive former Clinton White House aide named Rahm Emanuel who shared her clear-eyed view of what it would take in money and organization. And it worked, making Pelosi the first woman ever to ascend to the Speaker's chair. As Pelosi and Emanuel were hugging and high-fiving over the House Democrats' return to power on election night 2006, their first congratulatory message came from a Senator who had been one of their hardest-working surrogates out on the campaign trail. An aide announced, "You have a phone call. It's Barack."
How much of that majority the Democrats can keep in 2010 will be the real test of everything Pelosi has achieved this year. The President's party historically loses an average of 30 seats in its first midterm election, and the map looks particularly grim for the Democrats in 2010. A total of 49 Democrats will be running in districts that were won by John McCain in 2008. A handful of others are facing ethics probes. Pelosi is particularly concerned about the 37 freshmen, 27 of whom will be running in districts held by Republicans two years ago. Staying attuned to what is going on in those fragile districts is one reason Pelosi makes a point of meeting with the freshmen every Wednesday morning.
There are larger political forces at work as well ones that, if things don't go well in 2010, could call into question her aggressiveness in pushing Obama's agenda. Polls show independents feeling increasingly queasy about whether they got more change than they were bargaining for when they put Democrats in charge at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. After that difficult energy vote in June, Pelosi's more conservative members were taken aback at the firestorm of criticism that awaited when they returned to their districts for the Fourth of July break. That laid the predicate for even louder protests against health care reform in August. Meanwhile, there are worries that the liberal base that she will need to turn out in the midterms has been disillusioned by the compromises she has made to get those bills passed. All of which helps explain Pelosi's urgency to show real results before November on the single issue she expects to overshadow everything else: jobs.
Pelosi claims not to be worried. "We take them one at a time," she says. "This is how we win. One district at a time." And after all, if there is anything the Speaker has reason to be confident of, it's her ability to find a way to get to 218.
with reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington
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