After reclaiming the gavel on 3 January, Nancy Pelosi, who is 78, the only woman to be elected speaker of the US House of Representatives and the first lawmaker in over 50 years to hold the office twice, pledged that America’s 116th Congress would be “bipartisan and unifying”. She was setting herself a huge challenge. The government has been shut down since 22 December after President Donald Trump’s demand for a $5bn Mexican border wall.
As well as negotiating with an uncooperative president and forging a consensus with Republicans – who still control the Senate, the upper chamber – Pelosi needs to broker unity within her own party. The Democrats embraced her leadership only reluctantly, and this year’s diverse intake includes an outspoken and rebellious left wing. But if anyone can end Washington’s political deadlock, Pelosi can.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, has described Pelosi as “the strongest and most effective Speaker of modern times”. During her 2007-11 speakership she shepherded a fiscal stimulus bill and extensive Wall Street reforms through Congress, in response to the 2007-08 financial crisis, and secured passage of the Affordable Care Act, which extended health-care coverage to tens of millions of uninsured American citizens.
Pelosi’s first task in the new Congress is to find a way to reopen the government. Trump has said he’s prepared to maintain the shutdown “for years” to secure funding for his wall. Pelosi has said she will not spend a dollar on a project that she describes as un-American and “an immorality”.
A longer-term challenge for the speaker will be managing division within her own party. She skilfully saw off an attempted coup last year – it helped that she has no obvious successor – but agreed to limit her term to four years. A number of left-wing Democratic freshmen are contemptuous of the party’s wealthy, ageing leadership and uncompromising in their political views.
Rashida Tlaib of Michigan attracted public attention this month for pledging to “impeach the motherfucker [Trump]”. In contrast, Pelosi is an old-school politician who advocates “decency and dignity”, even when confronting an adversary she disdains (she recently joked to the Washington Post that her nicknames for Trump are “Rock Bottom” and “Difficult Circumstances”).
The Democrats’ majority in the House grants them extensive powers to investigate the president’s business interests and foreign ties, and to begin impeachment proceedings. Pelosi has not ruled out impeaching Trump but is urging the “pound of flesh club” in her party to wait for the facts.
The speaker has been honing her political instincts since early childhood. She was born in Baltimore in 1940, the youngest of seven children. “We were all christened into the Roman Catholic church and the Democratic Party,” she has said. Her father, Thomas d’Alesandro, was a congressman when she was born and became mayor of the city when she was seven. Her mother, Annunciata, was a skilled networker and Democratic organiser. “Our whole lives were politics,” Pelosi recalled in 1987.
She studied political science in Washington, where she met her future husband, Paul Pelosi, a wealthy financier. The couple married in 1963 and moved to San Francisco, where Pelosi raised five children, born within six years of each other, while also working as a Democratic volunteer and rising through the party ranks as an organiser.
When the San Francisco congresswoman Sala Burton was dying of cancer in 1986, she persuaded Pelosi to run as her successor. Pelosi was elected the following year. She used her first House speech to urge Congress to address the Aids epidemic. (Despite her Catholicism, Pelosi has long championed LGBT rights and women’s reproductive freedom.)
In 2001, she became the first woman to be elected to the post of Democratic whip. The following year she made history again as the first female House minority leader.
As a junior congresswoman in a male-dominated chamber Pelosi was used to being excluded and underestimated, as well as disliked. When asked by NBC this month why her approval ratings were below Trump’s, she blamed decades of Republican attacks. “They’re against me because I’m effective,” she said.
When she reclaimed the speakership, Pelosi called up her grandchildren (she has nine) and any other children on the House floor to join her. She threw her arm around Bella, nine, who watched with admiration as her grandmother took her oath. It was a symbolic moment, conveying the sense that America’s most powerful elected woman will be looking to secure her legacy.
Ensuring that Congress provides an effective check to the Trump administration will be one of the hardest and most important battles of her long career. It may also be her last.
This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown