‘Don’t Mess’ With Nancy Pelosi
“Women really are powering the Democratic Party.”
— Lisa Lerer, The New York Times politics reporter.
It was hard to miss: On Thursday, in front of a row of American flags, and sporting a crisp white suit, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House will draft articles of impeachment against President Trump next week, setting the stage for a vote before Christmas.
Hours later, just as she was ending a session with the press, a reporter asked her if she decided to move ahead with the impeachment process (her second as a member of Congress, she was also a legislator when President Clinton was impeached) because she hated the president.
She was not pleased.
She wagged her finger at the reporter and stormed back to the podium. Then, staring straight at the camera, she delivered a dramatic retort.
“This is about the Constitution of the United States and the facts that lead to the president’s violation of his oath of office,” she said sharply. “As a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone.”
“So don’t mess with me,” she added, before gliding out of the room, metaphorical and literal white suit intact.
And just like that, the one-time impeachment-wary leader who was once seen as a liability for many in her own party cemented her position as an impeachment warrior who managed to rally her party behind her and steer the process through the House with a measured hand.
At the apex of this historic moment, I caught up with Lisa Lerer, a New York Times politics reporter who has been zipping across the United States on various campaign trails. We spoke about Pelosi’s transformation into the Democratic Party’s heroic icon and her meticulous leadership style.
Lisa, in January you wrote that Pelosi “might just be the most powerful politician in the country.” And that was before the whole impeachment process. Do you think that’s still the case?
I think that still holds true, and maybe it’s more evident now. It is striking how much she’s been able to hold her caucus together. There was a big push from a lot of Democrats in the House for impeachment during the Mueller report and she was the one putting the brakes on that. Contrast that with Republicans when they took power in 2010 — that was a really contentious period for the caucus and [then house speaker] John Boehner had a lot of trouble keeping them together because of the burgeoning Tea Party movement.
Right. Initially there were also Democrats who said they wouldn’t vote for Pelosi to become Speaker of the House. How do you think she managed to transform into the popular face of the party?
She’s the ultimate insider, right? She’s been in Congress a long time. She’s an expert on how the rules work and how things actually get done. She’s known for twisting arms when she needs them. She rewards the people who have been loyal, and she has taken action against those who have voted against her.
But not only is Pelosi really powerful politically, she’s also become this powerful symbol for the party. We are in this moment of intense female energy and that’s the message that the party has really been leaning into.
And it’s not just who’s running and winning races — it’s the infrastructure of who is getting those women to victory. Out on the campaign trail, the number of women who were relatively uninvolved in politics and are now political activists is striking. Women really are powering the Democratic party.
And Pelosi totally understands the power of that image, too, right?
Exactly — she dresses for the occasion and wields those striking moments to her advantage.
Right. I think she’s also a kind of foil that Democrats really want to see up against Trump because there was such a strong gender component to his victory — not only because he was running against the first female party nominee but also because of the things he’s said about women in the past. So I think there’s an appeal to have this strong female adversary against him.
All the profiles I’ve read of Pelosi describe her as meticulous and careful. Do you think she has to be because she’s a woman and is held to more stringent standards?
That’s probably true — some of it might be personality — but I do think there’s a different standard, particularly when she was coming up back in the 80s, that standard was even more intense. She is this different model of female political leadership than what we see now. She’s of the model where you ran for office once your kids were grown — that was really how it was done. That’s what happened to Hillary Clinton and a lot of women leaders from that time. Compare that to what we saw in 2018 — this new crop of women, many of whom were younger, maybe single or had young children at home.
You’re currently traveling around the U.S. speaking to voters on both sides. Lisa, what image does Pelosi project to Republican voters?
It’s important to remember that she was the face of almost every Republican attack ad and I think there’s definitely a gender piece to that: She was the San Francisco liberal and that’s how the Republicans would go after her. But Chuck Schumer’s a New York City liberal and they didn’t really go after him in the same way.
Readers, how would you grade Nancy Pelosi’s performance and leadership style? A, B, C, D or F? Tell us why.
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In Her Words is written by Alisha Haridasani Gupta and edited by Francesca Donner. Our art director is Catherine Gilmore-Barnes, and our photo editor is Sandra Stevenson.
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