House Speaker Nancy Pelosi details an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 26, 2019. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
ouse Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s entire life has been in preparation for this moment: A confrontation with a bombastic president over allegations of corruption that could end his presidency or get him reelected.
The monumental showdown is as much a calculation about the politics of our time as a test of the laws and norms of the country — and politically, it's largely Pelosi's making. The San Francisco Democrat spent much of the last two years spurning calls for impeachment from the liberal wing of her party, entertaining the prospect only when moderate members of her caucus revolted against President Trump this week following reports that he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival.
"People have long misunderstood Nancy Pelosi. She is a die-hard liberal from one of the most liberal districts in the country and she's not always the most articulate communicator,"said Marc Sandalow, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and author of "Madame Speaker," a 2008 biography of Pelosi. "A lot of people assume that she’s just a knee-jerk liberal. She's not. She is a very talented backroom operational politico, and that's always been her skill."
Pelosi is one of the most recognizable politicians in the nation, and a punching bag of both the left and the right — too moderate for much of her liberal base, and to many conservatives, a caricature of "San Francisco values." But those close to her argue that she's also a brilliant legislative tactician who has lived and breathed politics since she was a child.
Pelosi’s dad was a congressman and the mayor of Baltimore; one of her six brothers also became mayor. She knew as a child, Sandalow said, to collect callers' names and phone numbers before asking what the call was about — so her dad could add them to his campaign list.
“As a little kid she learned bare-knuckles politics, and she's always been good at what people think of as behind the door [politics], in the smoke-filled rooms,” Sandalow said. “She was born into this politically operational family and she’s always been that way.”
'Whipping or Weaving'
That’s why, those close to her say, she has been able to maintain leadership of the often-fractured House Democratic Caucus for a staggering 17 years. And it’s why she waited until members from purple swing districts were on board — particularly first-term lawmakers who helped Democrats win back the House last year— before backing an impeachment inquiry of the president.
"It’s not a matter of her getting here —it’s when the caucus gets here," said her daughter, Christine Pelosi, a Democratic political strategist, referring to the growing consensus among House Democrats.
"She is always whipping or weaving," Pelosi said, a reference to her mother’s metaphor that the speaker’s job is to "weave" the differing threads of the Democratic Party and caucus into a coherent tapestry.
"And even when she’s not whipping a vote, she’s always counting," she added. “And she has to make sure that people are ready to go when they're ready to go. Because she's liberal. She knows the value of people being able to move out in front of her so they won't be able to say, 'Oh Nancy Pelosi pushed me into this.' No. That person came first."
Winding Journey to Power
Those calculations are largely a result of Pelosi's winding journey, from her upbringing in a politically savvy Baltimore family, to a stay-at-home San Francisco mom and Democratic volunteer, to the first female speaker of the House, who lost her majority and then regained it.
Pelosi is willing — far more than many other politicians — to take the heat if she thinks it will benefit her party, said her daughter.
“I tell her all the time, 'You have completely spoiled people,' " Christine Pelosi said. "There is not going to be a leader like you — no one else who does that work, who is willing to step back and say, 'Just win, baby,' when people in your own party run ads against you."
San Mateo Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier agreed, noting the "slings and arrows" Pelosi has been taking from hometown progressives over the past year for not backing impeachment sooner.
Speier, who has known Pelosi for 35 years, said "political instincts are in the speaker's DNA," and calls her "probably the most sophisticated political leader this country has ever seen."
"What is so remarkable about Nancy Pelosi is her grit," she said. “She's held the line because she instinctively knew that she had to get to a position where it wasn't just 50 or 100 or 150 members supporting impeachment. There are now 218 members and probably even more than that."
"She knows how to count like no speaker before her or probably after her," Speier added. "I mean, I watched Paul Ryan have to pull bills because he didn't have the votes. I saw John Boehner do the same thing. She has a remarkable skill bank."
That’s part of her strategy as a leader, said Sandalow, who has been watching Pelosi since he arrived in Washington in 1993, six years after Pelosi was first elected to Congress.
"She’s not one to take chances. There are some people who say, let's just take a vote on things and people have to stand by their record," he said. "And she always made the point: Why show them your weakness? You don't put something forward unless you're pretty confident you're going to win it. You don't want to expose the fact that you don't have the strength behind you."
But as she confronts Trump over allegations that he unlawfully pressured a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, her extensive experience in Congress has been crucial: She led the intelligence committee for a decade, sat as an ex-officio member ever since and helped draft the whistleblower law that is now at the crux of the showdown between House Democrats and the White House.
When Trump sought to head off the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, Pelosi reportedly told him, "You have come into my wheelhouse."
“Donald Trump, whether you like him or not, is so out of his league when he’s talking about intelligence procedure or about the way that you handle foreign leaders, because Trump never did that before he became president of the United States,” Sandalow said, noting that Pelosi has been steeped in intelligence for a quarter of a century. "Pelosi can certainly run rings around the president when it comes to understanding the ways intelligence works in Washington and that’s got to be an advantage in this fight."
Christine Pelosi said that both politically and practically, her mother has also been sowing the seeds of the current Democratic uprising for longer than Trump has been in office.
"That began years ago when she said we need to have more people, women and people of color, with national security credentials in Congress making these big decisions,” she said, noting that of the seven members of Congress with national security backgrounds who wrote an influential op-ed on Monday backing a possible impeachment, all but two are women and one is a man of color.
Of course, there’s also her role as a mom. Pelosi raised five kids born within six years of one another, an experience that, she told KQED last year, absolutely has helped her deal with the politics of Washington.
"The more wild and frenetic things get around her, the calmer she is," Christine Pelosi said. "It isn't any different than Donald Trump calling her and trying to get out of impeachment. Like, no, when you're caught you're caught."
"So I think that, you know, that’s the nature of being a mom," she said.