Nancy Pelosi stopped caring about what people think of her a long time ago, so she has no qualms about eating ice cream for breakfast with a stranger. Dark chocolate, two scoops, waffle cone. It’s a freezing January morning in Baltimore’s Little Italy, where Pelosi grew up in the 1950s. “You know what’s good about ice cream in this weather?” she says. “It doesn’t melt down your arm while you’re eating it.”
We are sitting in an Italian café on Albemarle Street, alone save for the staff and Pelosi’s security detail, to whom she has offered coffee. The Trump era has many Democrats in a panic, but Pelosi inhabits a more cheerful reality. She is convinced that America has hit bottom, has seen the error of its ways and is ready to put her back in charge.
The 78-year-old former House Speaker knows what her critics say about her: that she’s too old, too “toxic,” too polarizing; that after three decades in Congress and 15 years leading her party’s caucus, she has had her turn and needs to get out of the way. But there’s a reason she sticks around. Had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, she says, “we’d have a woman at the head of the table.” When that didn’t happen, Pelosi realized that without her, there might not be a woman in the room at all.
Pelosi is one of the most consequential political figures of her generation. It was her creativity, stamina and willpower that drove the defining Democratic accomplishments of the past decade, from universal access to health coverage to saving the U.S. economy from collapse, from reforming Wall Street to allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. Her Republican successors’ ineptitude has thrown her skills into sharp relief. It’s not a stretch to say Pelosi is one of very few legislators in Washington who actually know what they’re doing.
But few people talk about her in those terms. Instead, Pelosi is regarded as a political liability. Republicans see her as their biggest asset, and hope to motivate their voters in the midterm elections by putting her image in television ads. Meanwhile, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars she has raised for her party, nearly 60 Democratic House candidates have returned the favor by calling for new leadership. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s June 26 primary upset of one of Pelosi’s lieutenants, Representative Joe Crowley of New York, highlighted the restlessness of the party’s grassroots, and Pelosi’s erstwhile allies in the Congressional Black Caucus have pushed Representative James Clyburn to challenge her. Even the New York Times editorialized that she should go.
None of this fazes Pelosi. “If I weren’t effective, I wouldn’t be a target,” she says, working on her ice cream as leftover Christmas songs play in the background. The only part that bothers her, she says, is when women who are thinking of running for office tell her they couldn’t withstand the abuse. “I say, ‘Forget what they’re doing to me, because you won’t be that much of a target. But you will be a target, because this is about power. And if you look like you’re making headway they will come after you. And it won’t be a pretty sight.'”
The attacks on Pelosi are particularly ironic in this political moment. Since Donald Trump’s election, American women have poured into the streets, signed up to run for office in record numbers and surged to the polls. Many of them look a lot like Pelosi once did. They are brainy, liberal and comfortably situated moms who have looked at the political system with the exasperation of a person who has seen her husband get the laundry wrong and realized that she’s going to have to do it herself. If Democrats regain congressional power in November, as most experts expect, it will be by riding a tidal wave of female rage. But rather than tout their female leader–the first woman Speaker in history, and the odds-on favorite to reclaim the title–many Democratic politicians, both male and female, are running in the opposite direction. In this season of female political empowerment, Pelosi’s power still rankles.
It seems to enrage people that Pelosi feels entitled to things: money, power, respect. Of course it does–a woman is always held responsible for her reputation. Clinton, in her years running for President, was asked over and over again some version of the question, Why do you think people don’t like you? (Despite not being on any ballot, Clinton, too, figures prominently in the Republicans’ fall campaign strategy.) A powerful woman is always defined less by what she has done than by how she makes people feel.
Pelosi isn’t humble. Many women, she thinks, are afraid to show pride and need to see an example of confidence. Besides, making sure you get your due isn’t something you can delegate. One former Pelosi aide told me everything she does is rooted in this combination of obligation and entitlement: the sense that someone ought to do something, and she is the only one who can do it. Pelosi seems to feel no need to apologize for her status in the way women are expected to and men rarely are. Perhaps the assertion of ego by a woman is the most radical act there is: the refusal to submit or be subordinate.
It is not in Pelosi’s nature to cower or grovel. She will be who she is–liberal, privileged, unpopular–and let the chips fall where they may. To some Democrats, Pelosi’s is an attitude of unconscionable selfishness: she’s willing to damage her party to hold on to the position she believes she deserves. The story of Nancy Pelosi is, inevitably, the story of what people think of her. The way she is recognized and remembered, the way she is held to account. And so Pelosi doesn’t have the luxury of not caring about what people think of her: it’s the question on which her future, and the future of American politics, depends.
The morning after the biggest primary upset of 2018, Pelosi placed a call to Ocasio-Cortez. The 28-year-old socialist from the Bronx had predicated her campaign against the House’s fourth most powerful Democrat on getting rid of the old, out-of-touch party establishment, and pundits were speculating about the implications for other longtime leaders. Sitting on a goldenrod-colored sofa in her airy office on the second floor of the Capitol, Pelosi picked up the phone and set to the job of holding her fractious party together.
She told Ocasio-Cortez that while she loved Crowley, she had always wanted to see more young, progressive women in Congress, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversation. “There’s a lot to do,” Pelosi told her. “Thank you for your courage to run. This is not for the faint of heart.” It was typical Pelosi–a compliment, wrapped in an invitation to join the team, with just a hint of potential consequences. And it reflected a political education that, for Pelosi, began a lifetime ago.
The youngest of seven children and the only girl, Pelosi grew up like royalty. Her father Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. was a member of Congress when she was born, in 1940, and the mayor of Baltimore by the time she was 7. When young Nancy wasn’t being ferried to a Catholic girls’ school, she was attending her father’s ceremonial events or helping him get out the vote. Her father’s ancestors had immigrated from Genoa, Venice and Abruzzo, her mother’s from the southern Italian city of Campobasso. The family lived in a three-story brick row house in the heart of Little Italy, a blue collar community near Baltimore’s industrial waterfront. The house appears vacant now; Pelosi points it out to me as we drive by. (We had planned to take a walking tour, but it’s a cold day, and she detests the cold.) A few blocks over, there are hipster restaurants and lofts, but in this part of town, the corners still feature traditional pasta houses.
D’Alesandro wore a bow tie and straw boater and helmed an old-school urban Democratic machine, with party bosses pledging the loyalty of their tribes: the Italians, the Irish, the Jews, the blacks. His politics were about favor-trading and patronage, not grand ideological designs. (His aspirations to become governor were thwarted by a corruption scandal involving parking-garage construction, according to a 1954 TIME report.) Pelosi has a strong sense of ethnic identity–she credits her Italian heritage for her stamina–and as a leader she approaches the factions of the Democrats in a similar party-boss style. As her friend the late Congressman John Murtha used to say, “Don’t think she’s from San Francisco. She’s from Baltimore.”
Pelosi’s family made her a Democrat, but it was the 1960s that made her a liberal. While at Trinity College, a Catholic women’s school in D.C. now known as Trinity Washington University, she attended John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration and was swept off her feet. “Forget movie stars. We were all in love with JFK,” recalls Pelosi’s college friend Rita Meyer, one of a tight group of four girlfriends who remain close today. Her worldview still resembles JFK’s brand of liberalism: Catholic social justice, with a touch of noblesse oblige.
She embarked on the life of a traditional wife and mother. It was 1963, the year The Feminine Mystique was published, and the idea that women would graduate from college and start careers hadn’t taken hold. She had watched her own mother’s ambitions stifled by a domineering spouse. Now Pelosi followed her husband, financier Paul Pelosi, to New York City and then to San Francisco, giving birth to five children in rapid succession.
Her life changed in 1975, with a call one afternoon from then San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. “Nancy, what are you doing? Making a big pot of pasta?” she recalls him saying. (Pelosi is not much of a cook.) He offered her a spot on the city’s library commission and insisted that she take it. “I said, ‘I’m interested in the library, but I don’t need an appointment to the commission,'” she recalls. “And he said, ‘You shouldn’t say that. You’re doing the work; you should receive official recognition for it.'” That was a feminist lesson that stuck with her–a woman should get the credit she deserved–even if it was amusingly dissonant with the mayor’s assumption that she spent her days slaving over a stove.
Pelosi became active in California politics, raising money for candidates. She went on to chair the California Democratic Party and took a lead role in organizing the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She discovered a talent for assuaging the egos of powerful men even as she stood her ground against them. Yet she still envisioned herself as a helpmeet, a behind-the-scenes player. Then, in 1987, the San Francisco Congresswoman Sala Burton, who was dying of colon cancer, called Pelosi to her bedside and made her promise to run for the seat. When Burton died, Pelosi moved into an elegant house in the posh end of the district and entered a fractious 14-way Democratic primary.
Pelosi positioned herself as a well-connected pragmatist, with the slogan “A voice that will be heard.” She spent more than $1 million, a staggering sum at the time and more than the rest of the field combined. Her campaign targeted the district’s wealthy residents with flyers that promised she would fight income-tax hikes. It was likely Republican voters who carried her to victory, according to Marc Sandalow’s biography Madam Speaker.
The district was the center of the city’s gay community. Pelosi became its champion, fighting for everything from health insurance and housing subsidies to the AIDS quilt, a football-field-size memorial she convinced the National Park Service to allow on the Mall. She co-authored the bipartisan 1990 Ryan White Act, federally funding the treatment of low-income AIDS patients, which she muscled onto the national agenda and got a Republican President to sign. She was a supporter of gay marriage at a time when her party was pushing the Defense of Marriage Act. In 1993, she read a letter from Bill Clinton at an AIDS rally that the President declined to attend in person. When detractors sneer at her “San Francisco values,” she hears a homophobic dog whistle.
As Pelosi saw it, she was sent to Washington to stick up for her constituents. “She knew people personally who were dying by the week,” says James Hormel, a co-founder of the Human Rights Campaign and an early Pelosi supporter. “The people in her district don’t see her as somebody whose time has passed. They see her as a very vigorous defender of their rights.”
In these days of gridlock, most members of Congress exhibit a sort of learned helplessness, waiting for someone else to come up with an idea so that they can come out against it. It is especially bracing, in this environment, to relive some of Pelosi’s early crusades. She may not have set out for Congress, but once she got there, she attacked it with urgency–and frequently won.
As a junior member, she spent five years fine-tuning a complicated plan to preserve San Francisco’s verdant Presidio by converting it from a military installation to a public-private partnership with the National Park Service. Her own party put the legislation aside, but Pelosi kept at it, enlisting Republican allies, lobbying fellow members and offering policy concessions. In 1995, she managed to get a Republican Congress to create the nation’s most expensive national park–in the middle of San Francisco. As one Republican, James Hansen of Utah, marveled at the time, “There is no question she is a very persistent legislator.”
Pelosi claimed to have no interest in a leadership position. But when, in 1997, the only Californian among the Democratic brass stepped down, she saw her moment and began jockeying, calling in favors from her years of fundraising. “She raised the f-cking dough,” explained her friend and mentor, former Congressman John Burton of California. “She ought to be able to get something for it.”
It took four years for the role Pelosi wanted, Democratic whip, to open up. She spent the whole time running a hard-fought race against Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who had known Pelosi since her college days. Pelosi was accused of threatening to punish an unsupportive colleague by getting her district redrawn. Hoyer eventually became Pelosi’s No. 2 and a committed frenemy–a situation House Democrats describe as a long-running cold war.
During the George W. Bush years, Pelosi was a vociferous critic. She was the most prominent Democrat to oppose the war in Iraq from the start, believing the intelligence wasn’t solid. In 2006, buoyed by an electorate that had come around to Pelosi’s antiwar position, the Democrats won the House, and Pelosi became America’s first female Speaker.
Then, at the height of the 2008 campaign, the economy collapsed. On the afternoon of Sept. 18, Pelosi called Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and suggested they meet with congressional leaders the next day. But Paulson said it couldn’t wait that long. That evening, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate met in Pelosi’s conference room with Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Chris Cox and White House representatives.
There were just six weeks until the election, and it was clear that the bailout Bernanke and Paulson were asking for would be extremely unpopular. House Republican leader John Boehner couldn’t deliver the 100 votes he had promised. So Pelosi went back to her people and begged for more support. “She had to go to the Democratic caucus and convince them to give a $700 billion bailout to the most unpopular human beings on the face of the earth, then go home and face their constituents who were losing their homes,” says John Lawrence, Pelosi’s chief of staff at the time. The bailout passed the House with the support of 172 Democrats and 91 Republicans.
In this and other legislative jams, Pelosi’s strategy was persistence, persuasion and an encyclopedic knowledge of her caucus: what they wanted and what they feared. The night before a big vote, she and her staff would pore over the list of uncommitted members, figuring out who could be swayed and how. “Invariably, she’d get to the bottom of the list and go back to the top and start over,” says Lawrence, “which was not very appealing at 2 a.m.”
When Barack Obama won in 2008, Democrats had their chance to put roughly a decade’s worth of pent-up ideas into practice. They enacted fair pay for women, college aid and the stimulus, which included a raft of anti-poverty efforts. Pelosi’s House passed other priorities that died in the Senate, including a union-boosting measure and climate legislation. Her unruly caucus spanned the ideological spectrum, from Blue Dog conservatives to far-left ideologues, but Pelosi never lost a major vote. “I was in those rooms when people were saying, ‘Let’s just throw in the towel,’ and she’d say, ‘Give me the names and leave me alone for a minute,'” says George Miller, a retired California Congressman.
The crowning achievement of Pelosi’s career was health care reform. Democratic Presidents had been pursuing universal health care since the New Deal. Pelosi helped craft the House version of the Affordable Care Act. The trickiest part was balancing regional interests, particularly in setting Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates, which vary by jurisdiction. At one point, Pelosi and others recall, an aide told her there were 67 members who hadn’t committed to vote for the bill and asked how they should split up the work of persuading them. “Give me the list,” Pelosi said, and she made calls through the night.
Pelosi also knew when people didn’t want to hear from her and could find other buttons to push. To win the vote of Joe Donnelly, a conservative Indiana Democrat who is now in the Senate, she got the former president of Notre Dame to appeal to his Catholic conscience. Zack Space, a Greek-American former Congressman from Ohio, started getting calls from the Greek-American donor community when Pelosi wanted to apply pressure on a different measure. “She could hear frequencies from the caucus that weren’t audible to others,” says former New York Congressman Steve Israel.
In January 2010, Democrats lost the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy, depriving them of their crucial 60th vote to surmount a filibuster. Sensing that the party was losing the politics of the health care debate, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel circulated a plan to pull back, passing only a children’s health care measure and moving on from the issue. At a meeting in the Oval Office, Pelosi confronted Obama. “Mr. President, I know there are some on your staff who want to take the namby-pamby approach,” she said, according to two people who were in the room. “That’s unacceptable.” Obama took Pelosi’s side, and Emanuel’s plan died.
Obama’s relationship with Pelosi was his closest one on Capitol Hill, a former Obama aide tells me. “More than anyone else in the United States Congress, House or Senate, Democrat or Republican,” says the Obama aide, “she always kept her word to him, and she always delivered.” (The favor wasn’t necessarily repaid: Obama refused to appear at a Pelosi campaign event during his 2012 re-election campaign, according to a source familiar with the episode.)
The halcyon days of liberal legislating were short. In 2010, Republicans took back the House, riding a wave of voter anger at Obama, the Wall Street bailouts and health care reform. Pelosi was expected to resign in defeat, but she refused. There was only one way she would be vindicated: winning the majority again. And she was willing to wait.
If it’s Friday, this must be Houston. Pelosi has raised $680 million for her party since 2002, and on this February evening she is clicking her way across the basement floor of the convention-center hotel where the local Democratic Party is holding a fundraising dinner. It’s one of 71 events she’ll attend in a three-month span. In public, she tries to mention Trump as little as possible, but as she speed-walks through the hotel she can’t help herself. “I just can’t get over this President,” she says. “He is so beneath the dignity of the office, with everything that he says. It’s just amazing to me!”
The people at the exclusive predinner reception have all paid to meet Pelosi, but that doesn’t mean they all adore her. “She is a strong leader,” says Sergio Lira, a local school-board official. “But honestly, I think maybe it’s time for a change in leadership. She’s been there a long time.” Democrats, he says, need leaders who can galvanize and rally the base. “Nothing against her,” he says, “but I think her best years are behind her.”
It is the Harris County Democratic Party’s largest annual dinner in history, a testament to the energy on the left this year. Pelosi sits at a table with her longtime friend, the Democratic megadonor Amber Mostyn, under a giant chandelier. Onstage is Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a notorious stage hog who once complained that hurricane names are racist. To Pelosi’s surprise–she hates being surprised–Jackson Lee has Hillary Clinton on her phone, which she holds up to the mic, causing booming echoes. Clinton, reading woodenly, acknowledges “the presence of our great Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi,” then reads a confusing tribute to a dead woman who has not been honored on the program. (Pelosi’s relationship with Clinton is cordial but distant, aides to both say.)
Finally, nearly three hours in, Pelosi takes the stage. Friends say she has improved as a public speaker, but she’s still uninspiring, reading laundry lists of policies, reciting shopworn slogans and trotting out the same quotations over and over. “Some people have an unlimited tolerance for the suffering of others,” she says at one point. “And we’re like, ‘What? That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.'”
Republicans would like the 2018 election to be about Pelosi. “Nancy Pelosi is a theme that works anywhere in the country. It’s very motivating,” says Corry Bliss, who is in charge of the House Republicans’ super PAC, speaking as if Pelosi were a policy proposal. People have a “visceral” reaction to her, he tells me. “We will spend tens of millions of dollars reminding people across the country of what she would do as Speaker.”
A Pennsylvania House special election in March foreshadowed this approach. Nearly 60% of the GOP’s ads consisted of attacks on Pelosi, while 7% of the Democrat’s ads featured the candidate assuring voters he didn’t support her, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. The Democrat, Conor Lamb, won anyway. “If all we’ve got is Nancy Pelosi,” a Republican strategist told me, “we’re pretty desperate. It’s not going to be enough.”
What Pelosi would like the election to be about is neither her nor Trump but the tax legislation that the Republican Congress passed in December, which she has dubbed the “GOP tax scam.” Calling it a handout for the wealthy, she has derided its benefits to the middle class as mere “crumbs,” a comment for which Republicans pilloried her. But Pelosi thinks she’s winning the argument. In their midterm campaigns, Republicans have largely stopped touting the tax bill, as the message didn’t seem to be resonating.
Pelosi may have a rare talent for legislating, but her campaign skills are questionable. As proof of her acumen, she’s still telling the story of the 2000 elections, when she helped her party pick up five House seats in California even as Democrats lost races across the country. She takes credit when her party wins, but blames others when Democrats lose. Her message this year, that Republicans are for the rich, is essentially the same one Democrats have used in every recent election, with a couple of new slogans attached–even thought the President is far from a normal Republican. “The leadership is still in this 1990s mind-set,” a former member tells me.
The morning after the dinner in Houston, Pelosi travels to a teachers’-union hall for a discussion on the tax law. She sits in a folding chair at the front of the room, enduring another endless preaching-to-the-choir event. One person asks her what Democrats can do about people “voting against their best interests,” and Pelosi speaks carefully, not wanting to be baited into a “basket of deplorables” moment.
Trump voters, she says, need compassion, not condescension. “I don’t want to be disrespectful of any of the people who voted for the President,” she says. “I do want to make sure they understand what he is doing to them.” It may take patience, she adds. “Did you ever know anybody who was dating a jerk?” she asks. “Could you tell her? No. You have to wait until she figures it out for herself–hopefully before it’s too late–or you’ll just drive her into his arms.”
Later, Pelosi mingles with the crowd. A woman has brought a book to be signed for her daughter. “You’re an inspiration,” she says. A man volunteers advice: “Put President Trump on the spot!” he says. “Offer to debate him!” The women have gratitude; the men have demands. The women respect her; the men want to tell her what to do. She smiles graciously and poses for another picture.
For someone like Pelosi, who has spent her life in service of institutions–indeed, for anyone who has spent their life following a set of agreed-upon rules–the Trump era has been destabilizing. But Pelosi evinces an odd equanimity. Not wanting to become Trump’s foil, she lambastes him far less than she did Bush. “Being surprised, disappointed, even wondering about his behavior is a luxury we can’t afford,” she tells me over dinner at a Houston resort. It’s another one of her tiny nonmeals: she’ll consume only a bowl of seafood chowder and a glass of water, and spend nearly three hours talking. “I can’t waste my time thinking, Why would he say that? Why would anybody support somebody who says that?” she says. “It doesn’t matter anymore. All we have to do is win this election so that we can have leverage for the American people.”
In the meantime, Pelosi has used her scant power in Congress to considerable effect. Despite controlling all three branches of government, Republicans have proved unable to enact most of their promises, including their signature vow to repeal Obamacare. Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Chuck Schumer, have repeatedly outmaneuvered the President. In September 2017, they got Trump to agree to a spending deal that raised the debt ceiling and funded the government, drawing howls from conservatives. In March they cut another spending deal, this one so favorable to Democrats that Trump blasted it even as he signed it.
No detail in that bill escaped Pelosi’s attention. At one point, to resolve an impasse over minor-league baseball salaries, she worked out a compromise with the league through her relationship with the president of the San Francisco Giants, securing the players a pay increase. The final bill lifted spending caps and boosted domestic appropriations by some $60 billion, while blocking Republican efforts at environmental, labor and banking deregulation. “We wouldn’t have been able to pass that spending package under Barack Obama,” a House Democratic staffer told me. “Republicans would have laughed us out of the room.” The real art of the deal in Washington is being practiced by Pelosi, in what ought to be the Capitol’s least powerful caucus.
Pelosi’s talents aren’t always enough. Last year, the President told her and Schumer he wanted to protect young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers. But he soon retreated to a hard-line position. A January government shutdown over the issue ended after two days, when Senate Democrats panicked and caved. In February, Pelosi made a last stand, taking to the floor of the House for eight hours to read the stories of young immigrants. It was a political stunt designed to draw attention away from the fact that Democrats had failed the Dreamers.
The following month, Pelosi called Trump in a last-ditch effort to work out a solution. He greeted her by noting that he had recently run into her son in Palm Beach, Fla. Pelosi steered the conversation to immigration, urging him to support bipartisan legislation pairing a Dreamer fix with border-security measures. Trump, noncommittal, suggested they have lunch instead. Pelosi concluded that she was wasting her time and turned him down.
Trump blasts Pelosi in public, but in private he treats her with a sometimes awkward solicitousness. At one White House meeting, Pelosi casually said that the group assembled should “pray for success” on immigration, according to an aide briefed on the meeting. “Are you going to pray?” Trump asked her. She ignored him and kept talking, only to have him repeatedly implore her to “do a prayer.” Seeing that she did not intend to conduct one, Trump finally got Vice President Mike Pence to do it instead.
Thanks in large part to Trump’s unpopularity, a comeback is in sight for the Democrats. As many as 91 Republican-held seats may be vulnerable in November, and most nonpartisan handicappers think Democrats are favored to gain the 23 seats they need to retake the House. That would make Pelosi the Speaker again–if a majority of Democrats support her.
She insists that they do, but her hold on the caucus has clearly diminished. In 2016, 63 House Democrats–nearly one-third–voted against her for leader. No one argued that Pelosi’s challenger, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan, could manage the caucus better, negotiate better deals with Trump or better shepherd complicated legislation through the fractious and unruly House. They just wanted change.
Since then, the angst has only grown. Crowley’s defeat inspired more infighting, with younger members such as Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts agitating for her ouster. Ocasio-Cortez, who hasn’t said whether she would support Pelosi, epitomizes the young, diverse, far-left grassroots Democrats who find Pelosi frustrating. In June, after Congresswoman Maxine Waters urged supporters to publicly confront members of the Trump Administration, Pelosi rebuked her, tweeting, “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.” The base erupted. The old, white establishment of the Democratic Party “just isn’t where the base is on how big a threat white supremacy is to the country,” says Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, “vs. how big a threat being mean to Trump is.”
Despite the frustrations, Pelosi persists. No one I spoke to expects she will lose a Speaker vote if Democrats take the House by a big margin. If they lose or win a slim majority, it could be a different story. Her grip on her caucus is principally due to her legislative skills and the favors she has accrued. But it’s also because there’s no obvious successor. Over the years, Pelosi has frozen out, stymied or simply outlasted younger members who seemed to pose threats, most of whom–Chris Van Hollen, Xavier Becerra, Israel–have given up and left the House. Crowley’s loss removed another potential threat, while also creating a vacancy in leadership. A competition for that position would take some heat off Pelosi. But the threat is real: under pressure from members, Pelosi in mid-July pushed back the party’s post-election leadership vote until after Thanksgiving.
The idea that she’s a liability peeves Pelosi and her staff, who argue Republican congressional leaders are just as unpopular, if not more so. In a June Gallup poll, Pelosi’s approval rating was 29%, while outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan’s was 40%, Schumer’s was 29%, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s was 24%. “I think I have my pluses and my minuses,” Pelosi tells me. “But I have a confidence about what I bring to the table in terms of my network of friends around the country. And I get things done, even with a Republican President.”
Pelosi has been reading about the technicalities of impeachment, but she thinks it’s a political loser now. “I have my judgment about this President,” she says. “But the American people are not going to accept an impeachment if there isn’t solid, conclusive evidence presented in a nonpolitical way.” Some of her colleagues, I reply, believe that evidence already exists. “We’ll see what Mr. Mueller discovers,” she says. “It remains to be seen.”
It’s now dark outside and I’m exhausted, having met Pelosi after her morning walk and 8 a.m. hair appointment, taken half as many meetings and worn substantially more comfortable shoes. After this, I’ll go to bed, but Pelosi will take advantage of the time difference to make several hours of calls to the West Coast. An aide refers to her pace as “kill-the-staff speed.”
Thinking back to our conversation in Baltimore, I ask Pelosi if men aren’t right to feel threatened by the rise of women. After all, there’s only so much power to go around. She disagrees, insisting it’s not a zero-sum game. But isn’t there only one Speaker of the House? “That’s just one job,” she says. “There are other jobs.”
Once, while she was Speaker, Pelosi traveled to Afghanistan via Kuwait. The Kuwaitis treated her with elaborate deference, calling her “Your Excellency.” As the military plane soared over snow-capped peaks, Pelosi heard the pilot say he was headed for Kabul. That’s wrong, she said. You’re supposed to be taking me to Bagram Airfield to see the troops. But the pilot wouldn’t take her word for it. He called the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. She could hear him on the radio: “Our instructions say to go to Kabul, but payload wants to go to Bagram.” Pelosi cracks up at the memory: “In a few hours, I went from ‘excellency’ to ‘payload’!”
She leaves the real punch line unspoken. It didn’t matter what they called her. In the end, they did what she wanted.
This appears in the September 17, 2018 issue of TIME.