This week, Nancy Pelosi made herself the Democrats’ woman of the hour by demonstrating why her skills and savvy are critical right now, even while acknowledging that no one is indispensable over the longer term.
Pelosi did it first by bearding President Trump in his White House den, and then by cutting a deal with restive House dissidents that means she will exit, stage left, after another term or two. As a result, Pelosi has cleared the political path for an encore as House speaker.
It was Tuesday’s 17 minutes of must-see Oval Office TV that put her steeliness and smarts on full display. Of the three participants — four, if you count the mute mannequin with the moving head that goes by the name of Mike Pence — she was easily the standout, firm and direct, and adept at poking holes in Trump’s dubious assertions. Unlike Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who seemed sometimes ill at ease and other times excessively antagonistic, Pelosi was calm, unflappable, and on point.
My only quibble: She wanted to take the riveting, if impromptu, debate between our national leaders over government funding and Trump’s hoped-for border wall behind closed doors. Certainly their pointed public discussion was a departure from the usual. But it was also refreshing for its bluntness and candor.
It reminded one of a muted version of Prime Minister’s Questions, the spirited House of Commons debate that this week featured an electric exchange between Conservative Premier Theresa May and Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn. One couldn’t come away from watching it without thinking that our political discourse would benefit from an injection of some of that face-to-face argumentation.
The Oval Office encounter underlined what Pelosi’s supporters have long said: At this fraught moment, facing a president who rides roughshod over facts, niceties, and anyone who won’t push forcefully back, she’s the right person to lead the House.
“I think the optics of it worked very well for her,” said US Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, a close ally who has been helping Pelsoi round up the votes for a return to the rostrum. “I think she demonstrated, this is why I was speaker and this is why I will be speaker again.”
Just as that public face-off put her abilities on display, so have her private negotiations helped clear the way for her return.
The persistent complaint of the anti-Nancys is that even as the country and the House Democratic Caucus have changed, the House leadership under her has been static and set in its ways. But now Pelosi has agreed to limit her second stint as speaker to, at most, four years. (After her next two years in the job, Pelosi would have to corral two-thirds of the Democratic caucus to be nominated for a final term as speaker.)
The deal, which would apply to the Democrats’ top three House leaders, doesn’t please everyone. Pelosi frenemy Steny Hoyer, 79, the incoming majority leader, has objected. But this is something the Democrats really should approve. If eight years is long enough for a president to serve, it is certainly time aplenty for a legislative leader.
Even if the proposed rule change fails, however, Pelosi says she will abide by it. That’s smart. There is a growing demand, and logic, for generational change in the House. And now, with this agreement, the anti-Nancys can legitimately say that they have set the stage for change — change that will open the House up to new leadership in relatively short order. That deal will bring enough of them to support her that Pelosi will reclaim the gavel.
All in all, it was a very impressive week for a once and future speaker, a woman who proved yet again that she’s one of Washington’s most skilled politicians.