Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi and her army of whips had counted the votes and counted them again. But as they conferred in Pelosi's warren of offices just off the Capitol Rotunda in June, it seemed there was no way to get them to add up to 218. That's a majority in the House, the number it would take to pass the climate-change legislation the Speaker calls "my flagship issue." But in the middle of a recession, the measure that Republicans were calling a job killer seemed too much to ask of her stressed-out caucus, especially after Democrats had already put their necks on the line to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry and to pass a $787 billion economic-stimulus package, and when they were looking ahead to a massive overhaul of the health care system. Further, it would probably be futile. The Senate might not follow, and even the White House was sending mixed signals as to whether it wanted to do this on top of everything else it had going on in Barack Obama's first year in office.

But Pelosi was undaunted. "Everybody out of the office," the Speaker told her lieutenants. "Just give me the whip list" — the confidential tally of where every member stood. Not long after, during a vote on the House floor, California Congressman George Miller noticed her moving methodically across the chamber from member to member. "Like Jaws," Miller recalls, humming the movie's ominous bum-bum-bum-bum theme music. A reporter sidled up to Miller, the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and Pelosi's closest adviser, to ask, "What is she doing?" Miller chuckled. "She's getting the votes to pass the energy bill," he replied.

To win Rust Belt lawmakers, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman had whittled down the bill's targets for reducing global warming and switching to renewable fuels. But that was just the beginning of the dealmaking. He and Pelosi doled out billions of dollars in pollution allowances to utilities, industry and agriculture. One freshman Congressman from Florida demanded — and got — a promise of a $50 million hurricane-research center in his district. For others, there was money to train low-income workers for green jobs and to make public housing more energy-efficient. Though some in the White House had misgivings about the wisdom of pushing ahead, Obama worked the phones and even pulled wavering lawmakers aside during a June 25 luau-themed picnic on the South Lawn. The suspense went nearly down to the wire, but when the gavel fell at 7:17 p.m. on June 26, Pelosi had ... 219 votes.

Pelosi recalled that moment in a recent interview, barely able to get out the words as she battled a sore throat and nursed a cup of hot water, lemon and honey through a straw. "I never thought for one minute that we wouldn't win," she said in a raspy whisper. "Never."

It can be foolish — maybe even dangerous — to underestimate Nancy Pelosi. A former stay-at-home mom of five who didn't run for public office until she was almost 47, Pelosi holds the highest post ever attained by any woman in U.S. history, and stands second in line of succession to the presidency. She has consolidated more power than any other Speaker in modern history, scholars of the office believe. In the first year of the Obama presidency, she has used that power — and an 81-seat Democratic majority, the largest either party has enjoyed in the House in 14 years — to pass every item on his agenda: health care, energy, regulatory reform, education, pay equity. While most of the outside world's attention has centered on the intrigue and machinations of the Senate, where bills get snarled in procedure and the 60-vote hurdle to overcome filibusters, "the amount of things the House has done this year has been mind-boggling," says White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

Pelosi's is a leadership operation that runs with uncommon discipline and harmony, in part because she has made sure that it is manned top to bottom by loyalists. Those with whom she has tussled over the years, and there have been many, have by and large been banished. Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell, for instance, was toppled by Pelosi's fellow Californian Waxman. (While the Speaker stayed publicly neutral in that battle, few doubt that it would have happened if she hadn't let it.) The one exception is majority leader Steny Hoyer, who prevailed with the Democratic caucus when Pelosi tried a clumsy power play at the outset of her speakership in 2006 and attempted to replace a former rival. But the Speaker and her second in command have, at least from outward appearances, maintained a truce.

That is because at the core of Pelosi is a pragmatism decidedly at odds with her liberal image — one more in keeping with her background on the Appropriations Committee, where what matters in the end is not so much what you believe as what you can deliver. "She obviously has her own point of view on many issues, but she's recognized from Day One that you have to find the center of gravity in your caucus," says Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen, who runs the Democrats' campaign operation. "I think early on, a lot of people underestimated her ability to find that center of gravity."

All year long, Pelosi has been playing the legislative game at a level far deeper than most observers know or even understand. When Pelosi saw she had to accept a weaker version of a public option for the uninsured and cave on abortion rights to get a health care bill done in November, she took that deal, sold it to her liberals and passed Obama's signature domestic priority with a five-vote margin. What few people on the outside saw were the countless hours she had been devoting to a much bigger challenge: working out the quirks in Medicare-funding formulas that were pitting rural and Midwestern lawmakers against the rest of the House. "It was going to bring down the bill. It was the most important problem and the one that took the most time to solve," says a Pelosi aide. "And in the end, there wasn't a peep about it."

Big Inside the Beltway — Not Outside
As 2009 comes to a close, Pelosi is not taking a breather, though many of those around her wish she would. It was largely at the Speaker's instigation, Miller and others say, that the White House and Congress moved up their timetable for a new jobs package rather than waiting until January after they finish health care. "Our members go home every week. They put their hand on a very, very hot stove — the concerns of their constituents," Pelosi says. "I kind of insisted because I don't see how we can not do something before the end of the year. It takes a long time, as we have seen, for legislation to turn into a paycheck."

All this is why Pelosi topped the list of most admired House Democrats in a recent poll of 200 Washington insiders by National Journal. But she doesn't translate so well when you get beyond the Beltway. She comes off on TV as a scripted cartoon, icy and imperious, a dream come true for late-night comedians and the right. No attack on her, it seems, can be ruled out of bounds. On Fox News, Glenn Beck has joked about putting poison in her wine (she doesn't drink); comedian-commentator Dennis Miller has called her a "shrieking harridan magpie." Conan O'Brien joked that Pelosi used her summer break to "tone down my Botox expression from 'just Tasered' to 'an ice cube down my blouse.'"

Then there are the times when she throws her talking points off a cliff and follows them over the edge. Pelosi found herself in a monthlong war with the CIA in the spring, after she declared that agency briefers had misled her in 2002 about the nature of the interrogation techniques being used against terrorism suspects. Her GOP predecessor Newt Gingrich, who has had some experience with verbal self-immolation, called for her ouster: "She's made America less secure by sending a signal to the men and women defending our country that they can't count on their leaders to defend them." Her fellow Democrats ultimately rallied around her, but not before Pelosi's approval ratings dipped into the 30s — which put her in the same territory as Gingrich during his stormy tenure. Her poll numbers have yet to recover.

Those close to her insist that she is oblivious to all of this. "I remember sitting in her apartment not long ago watching TV, and she walks into the room, and I say, 'Hey, that's Sean Hannity. He goes on television every night and talks about how you're going to destroy the world,'" her daughter Alexandra says. "And she asks, 'Which one's Hannity?'"

But if Pelosi doesn't let it rattle her, that doesn't mean she isn't taking note. The four televisions that are tucked into a cabinet in her office are constantly on, set to C-SPAN, CNN, MSNBC and — yes — Fox News. Visitors to her Capitol suite are offered seats with a sweeping view of the National Mall, in part so she can sneak peeks at the four screens behind them. Each day, her aides give her 50 to 60 pages of clippings in which she is mentioned. She doesn't like them pulled from the Internet because she wants to know what page of the paper they ran on. Some are returned weeks later with notes in parochial-school penmanship: that's not right. why did they write that?

Pelosi carries two cell phones but no BlackBerry. There is no computer in her office and no real desk, just a table by the window big enough to fit her telephone, her paperwork and a bowl of peonies. It is there that Pelosi, who will be 70 in March, spends her spare moments working on a steady output of handwritten notes. When a colleague's mother dies, the Speaker encloses a poem written by her own mother with her condolence.

While Pelosi keeps dozens of mementos nearby, two framed photos are aligned like bookends. One shows 7-year-old Nancy D'Alesandro, in white gloves and a crownlike headband of tulle, holding the Bible as her father is sworn in as mayor in front of Baltimore City Hall in 1947. The other shows a frail Tom D'Alesandro at his daughter's side four decades later, on the day she first took her own oath of office as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He died two months later.

The future Speaker learned the fundamentals of politics in the living room of 245 Albemarle Street in Baltimore's Little Italy section. It was there that Nancy, the youngest of six and the only girl, stuffed envelopes, learned to count votes by precinct and helped manage a box of index cards known as the "favor file." It held a record of every supplicant who had received a job, a building permit, a bed in a city hospital. Come election time, reciprocation was expected.

It was also expected that the D'Alesandro boys would follow in the family business. But not Nancy, "the princess of the family," says her brother Tommy, the namesake son who would himself later be mayor of Baltimore. She was chauffeured to the Institute of Notre Dame a mile away (though she was embarrassed enough by that to insist on walking the last block). Her mother Annunciata made no secret of her hope that her daughter would become a nun. "Tommy was groomed to be mayor," Nancy would say, "and I was raised to be holy." Still, her mother sided with Nancy in her battle with her father to be allowed to go 37 miles away to Trinity College in Washington. While taking a summer class in 1961 at nearby Georgetown University, Nancy met a native San Franciscan named Paul Pelosi, and the two were married two years later.

In the space of six years, Nancy gave birth to four girls and a boy. Between driving carpool and sewing Halloween costumes and laying out a daily assembly line of wheat bread and sandwich meat from which the kids would make their lunches, Pelosi got heavily involved with San Francisco's Democratic scene as a fundraiser and hostess. For all the city's hippie-dippy image in the 1960s and since, San Francisco politics are an obstacle course of fragile alliances, simmering rivalries and a bewildering array of interest and ethnic groups. "Baltimore was a proper introduction to politics in San Francisco," Pelosi says with a laugh.

As state party chairwoman, Pelosi was instrumental in bringing the 1984 Democratic National Convention to San Francisco. With her fundraising skills in one of the few states where rich people opened their wallets to Democrats during the Reagan era, Pelosi had made herself indispensable to national party leaders. And then came a summons in 1987 to the bedside of dying Congresswoman Sala Burton, who had won her seat as the widow of legendary Capitol Hill power broker Phillip Burton. Pelosi had been in the trenches with both Burtons; Sala wanted to know if she wanted the job.

Pelosi said yes, and Burton bestowed her blessing five days before she died. It was a short, brutal and close race, one in which Pelosi fought a charge that she, as the wife of a financier who lived in posh Pacific Heights, was no more than a dilettante. And oddly, if you compare that with her image today, she was actually the conservative on the ballot; among Democratic voters, she finished second to openly gay supervisor Harry Britt, but eked out enough Republican support to win the race by 3,990 votes.

She arrived in Washington by tragic happenstance, with no long-term game plan in mind, she says. "I never had any intention of running for leadership. None whatsoever. I really didn't know how long I would stay in Congress."

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