Somewhere beneath the earth, the denizens of hell must be putting on parkas and mittens, because Nancy Pelosi has announced she’s giving up her post in the Democratic leadership.
Pelosi’s announcement last Thursday that she won’t be standing for the party’s leadership next year has been a long time coming. The House speaker had vowed more than once that she’d pass her post on to a new generation of leadership, to the point of making an informal 2018 deal with impatient Democratic critics in the House that she’d only stand for four more years. The pressure has only increased as the ranks of the party’s leadership have grown increasingly ancient. Though Pelosi framed this decision as her choice, just last week she was holding out the option of running for another term. The truth is that Pelosi probably had to end her tenure gracefully, or risk capping her career with an acrimonious fight within her party that she wouldn’t have necessarily won.
President Joe Biden has already declared Pelosi “the most consequential Speaker of the House of Representatives in our history,” and tributes from past and present lawmakers have come pouring in, extolling Pelosi’s historymaking tenure, her accomplishments, and her totally epic clapbacks against Donald Trump. But step away from the soft-focus lighting for a minute, and how do we actually evaluate Pelosi’s time as speaker?
Let Them Eat Jeni’s
Starting out as a progressive, Pelosi has steadily drifted to the center over the decades, coinciding with her rise up the party ranks, the gradual rise of her net worth, and even San Francisco’s transformation into an unaffordable playground for the rich.
Pelosi’s image as an out-of-touch millionaire was maybe best embodied by an infamous Late Late Show segment during the early months of the pandemic, when millions of Americans faced economic uncertainty, in which she showed off her set of expensive freezers stocked with gourmet ice cream. In the wake of Democrats’ underperformance in the 2020 elections, progressive groups singled out the incident as an unforced error that allowed Trump and the Republicans to paint them as “the party of the swamp.”
Also not helping matters was Pelosi’s husband’s very lucrative success as a stock trader, sending her wealth soaring by $16.7 million over 2020 and an estimated $38.9 million over 2021. So skillful has the Speaker’s husband been at picking winners and losers on the stock market that retail traders have, quite sensibly, tried to get in on this action, following the Pelosis’ stock moves to figure out what they should buy and sell. When asked about the obvious inappropriateness of this, Pelosi explained that “we are a free-market economy. [Congress members] should be able to participate in that.”
Once it became an issue, and even Trump and other Republicans started hitting her for it, Pelosi eventually had to pretend to support a ban on stock trading in Congress. But the bill whose introduction she eventually oversaw — introduced, conveniently, just days before a lengthy Congressional recess that gave lawmakers little time to look at and fix it, and differing markedly from the bipartisan bills agreed on earlier ― had a cruise ship–sized loophole. It prompted even one centrist Democrat to call it “yet another example of why I believe that the Democratic Party needs new leaders in the halls of Capitol Hill,” and charge that it had been “designed to fail,” which no one will be surprised to hear it probably was. Now, it’s not clear anything at all is going to pass curtailing this obviously corrupt practice.
Another, arguably far more consequential legacy from this year of Pelosi’s speakership is her needless decision to visit Taiwan, in the face of countless warnings not to, ratcheting up tensions with China that are only now starting to lower thanks to diplomatic efforts. Pelosi, long a fierce critic of the Chinese government, framed her visit as a defense of Taiwan, even though her actions squarely imperiled the island state by making Chinese aggression against it more likely, vividly illustrated by the blockade Beijing imposed and the series of intimidating missiles it launched over the country in response. While rising US-China tensions are by no means Pelosi’s fault alone, her ill-fated decision was a key flash point in worsening US-China relations and one future historians aren’t likely to look back on very kindly.
Even some of what Pelosi herself views as her major accomplishments have been less than stellar. Pelosi boasted about besting the GOP in renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and declared the resulting United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement a “victory for the American worker.” In reality, it was “90 percent NAFTA” heralding some important wins for Mexican workers to be sure, but preserving the investor-state dispute mechanism in a different form, jeopardizing Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s attempt to reassert energy sovereignty, while ignoring the climate crisis and doing little for American workers in terms of bringing back jobs.
Pelosi’s rightward drift is maybe best embodied by her turn against single-payer health care. The speaker was once upon a time a full-throated advocate for the kind of system we now tend to call Medicare for All. But by the time Pelosi reclaimed the speaker’s gavel in 2019, the year House Democrats introduced legislation to make it reality, she had become “not a big fan” of the idea, waved at unspecified “complications,” parroted right-wing talking points about the impossibility of paying for it (in turn recycled by Republicans to attack the policy), and deployed an aide to encourage health policy groups to undermine it, while assuring insurance executives they’d fight against any bill. Obamacare, she said, was “a better benefit than Medicare,” and would lead to “health care for all.”
Was Pelosi really “the most consequential” speaker in the history of Congress? It’s a hard claim to make considering her latest stint was better defined by what didn’t pass than what did. The past nearly two years of Democratic control of Congress has led to virtually none of the big-ticket items promised in the 2020 Democratic platform: no $15 minimum wage, no public health insurance option, no universal pre-K or affordable child care program, and no expansion of Medicare, to name just a few. Even the Democrats’ major new anti-poverty program, the child tax credit, failed to be renewed. This was largely because of the splitting of Biden’s massive infrastructure bill into separate centrist and progressive legislation, and their eventual de-coupling ― something Pelosi broke a promise by reportedly pushing for even before the White House was ready to fully give up on the latter.
What did pass? A bill that’s part infrastructure spending, part privatization giveaway to Wall Street that was originally Trump policy; a so-so climate bill that doubles as a dangerous fossil fuel giveaway; the limited authority for Medicare to negotiate some drug prices, tied to the latter; and a massive stimulus bill that re-energized the economy and poured money into state and local governments, the most unambiguously good of all of these pieces of legislation. One can’t dump all this on Pelosi, given the various players and machinations involved. But it’s hard, then, to say her record outweighs that of even, say, Newt Gingrich in the ’90s, whose radical, right-wing “Contract With America” accompanied a historic House victory for his party, before heavily shaping the agenda of a president from the opposite party.
Pelosi reportedly views a politician’s job as reshaping public opinion so it favors her political goals, with former representative Steve Israel recalling how, when he felt he couldn’t oppose a GOP package of tax cuts for the rich because his constituents favored them, Pelosi instructed him: “Well, educate them.” So it’s telling on what issues she chooses to try reshape the political terrain for and push, and on what issues she doesn’t: not for Medicare for All, but for an insurance industry giveaway; not “the green dream or whatever,” but a bill that massively expands fossil fuel drilling; not student debt cancellation (“the president can’t do it — so that’s not even a discussion”), but for a far more expensive, fraud-riddled business loan program that saw 91 percent of the nearly $800 billion lent out fully or partially forgiven.
Where Credit’s Due
Pelosi’s corporate-accommodating politics don’t necessarily mean her political instincts were always wrong ― even if their outcomes might sit awkwardly with the Democratic partisans now paying tribute to her.
Few at this point probably care to remember that Pelosi resisted as long as she could the push to impeach Trump, worried it would be a polarizing move that would backfire and give Trump exactly what he wanted, and urged instead that he be defeated politically at the ballot box. She was arguably proven right when the impeachment trial handed Trump what is still his best ever approval rating.
Similarly, Trump’s 2020 defeat was midwifed by Pelosi’s decision to block progress on a second pandemic stimulus bill worth $1.8 trillion late in the year, which would have almost certainly given Trump’s election chances a boost. After at first walking away from the table because Trump’s proposed bill was too small, Pelosi settled for a far smaller stimulus after the election was over. The episode speaks to Pelosi’s tactical acumen, though some of her critics might charge that she inappropriately put politics over human need.
Pelosi deserves credit for standing firm, and keeping her caucus united, during the 2018–19 government shutdown standoff over Trump’s demand for border wall funding, rightly seen as one of her major triumphs as, first, House minority leader, then speaker. But this is undercut by the fact that construction of Trump’s idiotic wall — once despised by liberals as the most glaring, ugly embodiment of the former president’s xenophobia — has continued under Biden, breaking a campaign promise, without a peep from Pelosi. But the outgoing speaker’s not an outlier here: virtually everyone who used to be against the wall stopped caring about it the moment Trump was out office.
Meanwhile, Pelosi can take credit for a flurry of progressive legislation that passed the House during her speakership, including a landmark police reform bill, a $15 minimum wage bill, the pro-union PRO Act, a voting rights bill, and the codification of abortion rights. Unfortunately, these and other bills ended up little more than symbolic affairs, since, first, GOP control of the Senate, then, the Senate filibuster, meant they went nowhere. It’s hard to say with certainty whether this means a different situation in the Senate would have led to a more progressive legacy for Pelosi, since the known gridlock in the upper chamber also meant party leadership could happily pass progressive legislation in the House knowing it was ultimately doomed.
It’s more than likely that the lasting legacy of Pelosi’s political career won’t be from this most recent speakership, when her often publicity-baiting clashes with Trump have taken center stage. Instead, it’ll be her vote-whipping efforts to rescue Obamacare at the last minute in 2010 and her role in killing George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to privatize Social Security. Of course, those are also paired with less admirable parts of the story, including her abandonment of single-payer and Obamacare’s ongoing dysfunction, her repeated efforts to protect the US government’s sprawling mass surveillance system, and her wishy-washiness on Barack Obama’s ultimately doomed attempt to cut entitlements.
There’s Worse to Come
It’s hard to definitively evaluate Pelosi’s speakership given the circumstances in which she was was forced to lead, which included a gridlocked Senate, a Democratic party awash in unprecedented levels of corporate money, and a president who didn’t always seem to view his own policy agenda as his top priority. Would Pelosi have been more of a progressive firebrand under different conditions? Or would she have served as a conservatizing force?
One thing’s for sure: though there’s no shortage of criticisms one could make of Pelosi, the Left will likely miss her. Pelosi was no ally to progressives — as her endorsements of Joe Kennedy III and Henry Cuellar, not to mention public dismissal of the “Squad” should remind us — but she also wasn’t actively hostile to them, viewing them as just one, annoying part of a coalition of a host of similarly annoying factions that she had to manage as party leader. To that end, she at times worked behind the scenes to protect Squad members from the wrath of centrists, as well as from Trump’s racist attacks, and seemed to genuinely want to maintain a good relationship with the progressive members. The same can’t be said of those who are tipped to step into her shoes.
Pelosi’s actual record is far more mixed than her biggest fans would ever admit. But the Left may well come to value her leadership more once we see who fills the vacuum she leaves behind.