Once ‘the face that de­feated us,’ Pelosi is poised again to make his­tory in House

The Washington Post - - ELECTION 2018 - PAUL KANE

After a post­elec­tion cau­cus meet­ing in 2010, a de­spon­dent House Demo­crat an­grily la­beled Nancy Pelosi “the face that de­feated us.”

The first woman to serve as House speaker, Rep. Pelosi (DCalif.) had over­seen a his­toric 63-seat loss amid a bar­rage of Repub­li­can ads that pil­lo­ried her as a San Fran­cisco lib­eral and lam­basted the 2010 Af­ford­able Care Act.

Yet Pelosi re­fused to step aside and con­tin­ued lead­ing Democrats, even after com­ing up short in three more elec­tions, and late Tues­day night she marched on stage with a new la­bel: the face of vic­tory.

On a night when Democrats suf­fered losses in the Se­nate and in some mar­quee gover­nor’s races, Pelosi’s House Democrats de­liv­ered a re­sound­ing midterm tri­umph that hands them the ma­jor­ity and all the power that en­tails. They can set the agenda through their com­mit­tee chair­men and in­ves­ti­gate Pres­i­dent Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Noth­ing be­comes law, for the next two years, un­less they sup­port it.

“Re­mem­ber this feel­ing: Know the power to win,” Pelosi told a cheer­ing crowd at a Capi­tol Hill ho­tel ball­room.

At 78, she is poised to once again make his­tory. Should she over­come some in­ter­nal op­po­si­tion, Pelosi will be­come the first per­son to re­turn to the speaker’s post since Sam Ray­burn (D-Tex.) in 1955. More­over, no one has ever gone eight years be­tween los­ing and then re­claim­ing that cov­eted gavel.

Democrats will for­mally nom­i­nate their can­di­date for speaker after Thanks­giv­ing, so Pelosi will spend the next few weeks try­ing to firm up her sup­port and chart a course for how she would lead the newly em­pow­ered Democrats in their con­fronta­tions with Trump.

She took a call from the pres­i­dent shortly be­fore mid­night, after she had spent most of Tues­day pledg­ing to find some is­sues on which to work with him and vow­ing to fight him on oth­ers where Democrats are op­posed. Her daugh­ter, doc­u­men­tary film­maker Alexan­dra Pelosi, fol­lowed Pelosi around, film­ing mo­ments through­out the day.

“We will strive for bi­par­ti­san­ship, seek­ing com­mon ground, as we are re­spon­si­ble to do,” she told the crowd of sup­port­ers ear­lier in the evening. “But when we can­not find that com­mon ground, stand­ing our ground.”

The vic­tory, for cer­tain, tasted sweeter for the choco­late-lov­ing leader be­cause Democrats used the in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar ACA, once de­rided as Oba­macare by Repub­li­cans, to their ad­van­tage. She re­peat­edly kept can­di­dates fo­cused not on the lat­est Trump scan­dal, but on the GOP ef­fort to re­peal the law and elim­i­nate pro­vi­sions such as a ban on in­sur­ers in­creas­ing rates for con­sumers with pre­ex­ist­ing health con­di­tions.

On the eve of Tues­day’s vote, she sent one fi­nal re­minder not to take the bait from Trump on a cul­ture war. “Democrats have kept the fo­cus on the health and eco­nomic se­cu­rity of the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” she said Mon­day in a “Dear Col­league” let­ter to her cau­cus.

Repub­li­cans and their al­lied su­per PACs made Pelosi the cen­tral vil­lain of at­tack ads against Democrats, more so than in 2010, but the ef­fort fiz­zled. Trump was a much big­ger fac­tor in the elec­tion than Pelosi, ac­cord­ing to polling.

Pelosi’s in­ter­nal Demo­cratic crit­ics have ques­tioned her ef­fec­tive­ness after so many elec­toral de­feats. They reg­u­larly talked about a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship, pass­ing the torch from her and the other sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian lead­ers, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and James E. Cly­burn (D-S.C.), to a new crop of am­bi­tious Democrats who have been itch­ing to take more power.

And those crit­ics came from each di­rec­tion.

Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) charted the course for win­ning in Trump-lean­ing dis­tricts in his spe­cial-elec­tion vic­tory in March, vow­ing not to vote for Pelosi for speaker. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) her­alded the rise of a more aggressive lib­eral wing that saw Pelosi as too timid for these Trumpian times with her up­set vic­tory in New York’s pri­mary in June.

This new ma­jor­ity, when all the races are called, is likely to be the small­est since 2001, when Repub­li­cans held the edge by a hand­ful of seats. It will be dra­mat­i­cally smaller than the nearly 30-seat mar­gin Pelosi had in 2009 and 2010, her last years as speaker.

Her big­gest sell­ing point, so much ex­pe­ri­ence, also had been con­sid­ered her big­gest weak­ness, par­tic­u­larly in an era when a re­al­ity TV show star can win the pres­i­dency and a 28year-old for­mer wait­ress like Oca­sio-Cortez can top­ple a 20year in­cum­bent.

But these are very tur­bu­lent times, and with Democrats los­ing ground in the Se­nate, and no clear na­tional party leader oth­er­wise, Pelosi is go­ing to sell her­self as a steady hand who knows how to de­liver.

“We want some­body who’s been to the cir­cus be­fore,” said John Lawrence, her chief of staff dur­ing her four-year stint as speaker, which be­gan last decade. “It is not a job for on­the-job train­ing.”

To win back the gavel she will re­quire a ma­jor­ity, at least 218 votes, prob­a­bly all from her side of the aisle, and after that she will have to bal­ance the needs of those new fresh­men try­ing to win re­elec­tion in swing dis­tricts and lib­eral up­starts de­mand­ing con­stant con­fronta­tion with Trump.

Lawrence sported a “Madam Speaker 2007” pin Tues­day night, a me­mento from the day Pelosi broke the House’s glass ceil­ing and was sworn in as speaker al­most 12 years ago. Back then, some Democrats viewed the Bush White House as com­plicit in a war crime for ini­ti­at­ing the Iraq War un­der the mis­taken pre­tense that Sad­dam Hus­sein’s regime had weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

“They wanted to move straight to im­peach­ment,” Lawrence re­called.

In­stead, Pelosi em­pow­ered her com­mit­tee chair­men to con­duct deep in­ves­ti­ga­tions into the ad­min­is­tra­tion. She brushed aside im­peach­ment res­o­lu­tions like those brought by then-Rep. Den­nis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio).

It’s in­struc­tive for how she will prob­a­bly han­dle the far-left flank of her cau­cus on mat­ters in­volv­ing Trump. By 2008, as the econ­omy col­lapsed, vot­ers felt com­fort­able hand­ing the White House to Barack Obama and giv­ing Democrats mas­sive ma­jori­ties on Capi­tol Hill.

Pelosi will want to repli­cate that ef­fort to cre­ate an eas­ier path to a Demo­cratic vic­tory in the 2020 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “The first thing we have to do for vot­ers is to demon­strate that we can be trusted with the levers of govern­ment,” Lawrence said.

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