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Nancy Pelosi, Trump wrestler and tightrope walker, wins the hearts of Democratic centrists

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi speaks to reporters following a House Democratic caucus meeting July 10, 2019, on Capitol Hill.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

Nancy Pelosi nearly was blocked from the speaker’s gavel late last year by a small band of moderate Democrats who said she was too divisive and had been atop the party for too long.

More than six months into her second spin as speaker and her 17th year as leader of the House Democrats, the San Francisco politician has won over those centrist skeptics. As House members left Washington on Friday for their six-week summer break, Pelosi’s position atop the Democratic Party — which she leads until there is a 2020 presidential nominee — has never been stronger.

Last week, she tamped down unrest among progressives and landed a major budget deal with the Trump administration.

And in a development that seemed unlikely, it’s the moderates in the House Democratic Caucus, some of whom campaigned against her, who are now some of her biggest champions.

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Although Pelosi has faced criticism from the party’s progressive wing, her critics on the left have not made any effort to move against her, leaving her with no organized opposition in the House — a sharp contrast to the frequent plotting and repeated rebellions faced by the two Republicans who preceded her, Reps. John A. Boehner of Ohio and Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

Pelosi’s newfound and perhaps unlikely popularity among centrist Democrats stems from her actions this year to defend them ahead of a 2020 election that may be more difficult for them with President Trump on the ballot and against a Democratic base that has moved to the left since the last time she wielded the speaker’s gavel.

As the party’s left wing has rallied to begin impeachment proceedings, Pelosi has held them off, in effect shielding moderates from a divisive vote; she has resisted efforts to add controversial policies to legislation, such as taking money away from immigration enforcement; and she backed a policy established by the Democrats’ campaign arm to protect moderates from primary challengers.

“I think she’s performing better than when we were passing everything,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), referring to Pelosi’s role in 2009 and 2010 winning passage of the Recovery Act, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. “She managed that, and I thought that was extraordinary.”

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Perlmutter was one of 16 Democrats who late last year signed a letter calling for a new speaker. Fifteen Democrats ultimately voted against her on the House floor.

In interviews with nine of those Democrats, nearly all praised her handling of the caucus as members navigate through impeachment, legislative dead-ends in the GOP-controlled Senate and battles with Trump — perhaps more difficult terrain than they had anticipated when they were hoping a rookie would get elevated to the job.

Pelosi is still not hugely popular back home, Perlmutter said. “I gain nothing in my district praising Nancy,” he said. “It’s just the truth.”

Perlmutter said he intended to drop a key demand that the rebel faction secured in negotiations with the speaker-to-be last year: a guaranteed end to her speakership by 2022.

Others in the group said they still wanted the rule to be enacted by House Democrats, arguing that no matter how good Pelosi is at the job, they still want to see newer members get a chance to lead.

It’s unclear when, if ever, the caucus will vote on the idea. A vote was postponed this winter, and the proposal has now been referred to the Democrats’ Committee on Caucus Procedures with no immediate plans for a binding vote.

Pelosi agreed when she won reelection as speaker that she would abide by the rule whether the caucus voted for it or not.

For years, Republicans have campaigned against Pelosi as a “San Francisco liberal.” Her standing among progressives in her district hasn’t been in doubt — she won her 2018 race with 87% of the vote and hasn’t dipped below 80% in a general election since 2008 — but she acknowledges she has had to lead the Democratic caucus from a different perspective.

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“As speaker I have to bring unity to our caucus and to do so with the boldest common denominator,” she said Friday, comparing herself to a weaver “at the loom just making all of those threads come together in the boldest possible way.”

Often, that means policies that are more centrist than what many activist Democratic voters want — but which match the needs of House Democrats from tough-to-win swing districts.

Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) said he didn’t know Pelosi well when he signed a letter in late 2018 pledging to oppose her speakership, although he’s served in the House since 2005. He said he didn’t feel the same way today.

“I can’t change what I said or anything else,” he said. But “I’ve come to know her much better now, and she is a very, very skilled politician.”

To win the majority, Democrats had to carry seats in places where they historically had not been competitive, he said. “You can see it: People have a great appreciation for her vision about that.”

Some of the veteran House members who led the effort to unseat Pelosi say that they still want to see a new generation of leaders atop the caucus but that she’s done far better than they expected.

“Quite frankly, she has demonstrated enormous skill and ability in leading our caucus,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), who signed the same letter. “She’s done a fantastic job. I have no criticism of her.”

“Even as someone who ran against her, clearly no one understands the institution better than she does,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a 2020 hopeful who signed the letter and challenged Pelosi on the House floor in 2016. “I think she’s doing a really good job.”

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Several freshmen had promised voters in 2018 they would vote against Pelosi for speaker. Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.) was one of them; he voted “present” on the House floor earlier this year — an abstention that allowed him to keep his promise not to vote for her but did not harm her chances of winning. He now says he’s happy with how Pelosi has led.

“In some ways, I was pleasantly surprised that she is cognizant of the Blue Dog Coalition,” he said, referring to a group of centrist Democrats, “and people who are more moderate.” But, he added, “I would still like to see us be much more bipartisan.”

Pelosi’s popularity with centrist and politically vulnerable Democrats has cost her with progressives, who have a much larger social media presence and are more willing than their centrist counterparts to speak out publicly. That tension was laid bare in recent weeks.

Much of the disagreement has focused on impeachment. Pelosi argues that it is foolish to move forward without broad and bipartisan support, particularly because the GOP-controlled Senate is all but certain to block any effort to remove Trump from office.

About 100 rank-and-file Democrats, many of them self-described progressives, say they feel they have a constitutional and moral duty to try to remove the president.

Pelosi also angered four progressive freshman members of color who call themselves “the squad” by blocking liberal policy additions this summer on a bill to fund the White House’s request for humanitarian aid at the border, one of the major policy squabbles among Democrats this year.

Pelosi criticized one of the “squad” members for tweeting negative comments about other House Democrats. One, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, accused her of dismissing women of color.

Pelosi on Friday met privately with Ocasio-Cortez and tweeted a photo of them smiling together, hoping to signal that any unrest has been resolved. Any “personality issues” among the Democrats, Pelosi said, are only “minor.”


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