By Charlotte Robinson
IN A September press conference, Nancy Pelosi dismissed a suggestion that her time in Congress was coming to an end. “Get out of here,” she said with a mischievous smile.
Pelosi was Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 2007, then House Minority Leader from 2011, and speaker again since 2019. She is 81-years-old, and despite living in a country that doesn’t impose term limits on its Supreme Court judges, and elects 77-year-olds to new jobs, speculation of her retirement has persisted for years.
There is an expectation that she will depart after next year’s midterm elections, and presuming that the Democrats manage to hang on to their House majority after them, then they’ll need a new speaker – a new minority leader if they don’t.
Assuming to know Pelosi’s true intentions is mere postulation. She originally considered retiring in 2016, but the election of Donald Trump upended those plans, and despite making a commitment in 2018 to serve no more than two terms, she may well seek to extend her tenure as speaker – along with the posts she’s held since 2007.
So what is it that has kept her at the top of her game for so long?
“Well she would probably say raising 5 children who were born in 6 years,” John Lawrence, Nancy Pelosi’s former chief of staff told Redaction Report.
“She just learned to manage her time, she learned to manage people, and that is really the skill.
“She’s a very results oriented person, not particularly ideological, she’s not even particularly partisan, she would always talk about the necessity of bipartisanship, but she’s very much motivated by her policy goals and she’s not terribly hung up on her own ego.”
She could be forgiven however for having an ego – she remains the only woman to have served as speaker of the house.
Elected to represent San Francisco for 33 years, she has been an instrumental player in the passage of many landmark bills.
Pelosi is known for her powers of persuasion, ruthlessness, and sharp political acumen. The prospect posed to Pelosi’s successor is a daunting one. They will face the tough job of holding together the Democratic coalition, and Pelosi’s agility and wisdom means that they will be big shoes to fill.
“There is nobody else in the house that could bring together the far left and the centrists among the Democrats as well as she does,” Dr Richard Vatz, Professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Towson University, told Redaction Report.
“Pelosi is a particularly politically able speaker of the house, her relationships appear to be firm, she knows when can win votes, she knows when she cant win votes, she is as able a speaker of the house as I think we’ve had – I actually don’t even see why she would entertain retiring, since she seems to be very popular and strong.”
A faction in the Democratic party that are presumably looking forward to Pelosi’s retirement, is the progressive caucus, with whom she’s experienced growing tension in recent years. Democrats in general are thinking about their appeal to younger voters, and a Pelosi exit could usher in the next crop of leaders.
“The average age of Democrats on the hill is around 60, and obviously that doesn’t reflect who the largest voting bloc in the Democratic party is, which are millennials and Gen Z”, Matt Royer, the Communications Director for Young Democrats of America, said.
“I think a lot of the younger folks are not feeling that their voices are being heard, as there’s a lot of gatekeeping when it comes to positions of power, especially as we are a lot more hindered by economic circumstances.
“But I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily looking forward to seeing her leave – Nancy Pelosi herself is an alumni of the YDA and she’s a testament to our work. I think what we’d be more looking forward to is seeing a new generation of leaders step up.”
So who will be stepping up to succeed her?
Theoretically it would fall to one of the speaker’s deputies, the majority leader, Steny Hoyer, or majority whip Jim Clyburn. Clyburn, in particular, is especially influential in the Democratic Party, being largely credited for saving Joe Biden’s presidential bid.
But like Pelosi, the two are both in their early 80s, and alongside a 79-year-old President, it’s likely that the Democrats will want to demonstrate that they are looking to the future by picking someone younger to manage the House Democratic Caucus.
The favorite is Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who, if chosen, would be the first Black speaker.
Jeffries is a member of the progressive caucus and has worked his way up to be the fifth-highest ranking Democrat. Many in Washington think that there are no other credible candidates, although Jeffries himself has been careful to knock back suggestions that he’s angling for the position.
Credible or not, there are other candidates – Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts are both presumptive candidates for the position.
Jayapal is chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and has built on her public profile during the infrastructure talks, and Clark, whilst being the fourth-highest ranking Democrat, is arguably less well known to the American public.
But it’s not the American public who will choose the next speaker. Nor will they vote to maintain Pelosi in her current post – that task falls to Congress.
CNN reported on December 15 that Pelosi intends to lead House Democrats through the next election, and perhaps even beyond. But the midterms are a year away, and a lot could change in that time. If Pelosi does throw her hat in the ring, a majority of Representatives-elect could deny her that beyond.
Nancy Pelosi is thought of as one of the most formidable political tacticians to have ever served in Congress. She arguably remains the most influential woman in US politics – notwithstanding the election of Kamala Harris to the Vice Presidency – and occupies the limelight whilst Harris lingers in Biden’s shadow.
When she retires, her legacy will be The Affordable Care Act, the bipartisan infrastructure package, and holding the Democratic party together as ideological divisions cracked it apart. “She is, at the bottom line, an institutionalist who views her job as making government work and delivering results as effectively as she can”, says John Lawrence. And few will dispute that she achieved both.
John Lawrence is a Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington Program, and served as Nancy Pelosi’s Chief of Staff from 2005-2013. He has just completed a book which is due to be published next Autumn: Arc of Power: Politics and Policy in the Pelosi Era 2005-2010.
Dr. Richard Vatz is a tenured Professor of Rhetoric and Communication at Towson University. Nancy Pelosi was the guest speaker in one of his 2018 classes.
Matt Royer is the Communications Director for Young Democrats of America, and was previously a campaign manager for Democratic state level candidates in his home state of Virginia.
Featured Image: Gage Skidmore @Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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