Nancy Pelosi’s still got it. Never lost it. But she should step aside anyway.
As Republicans and Democrats around the country scratch their heads and wonder why this septuagenarian San Franciscan was elected to a sixth term as House minority leader on Wednesday, it’s certainly not that she’s a visionary, that she looks like the future of the party or that she’s the perfect national spokeswoman for Democratic values and policies.
Instead, there’s a much simpler explanation: Pelosi is the best vote-counter of her generation — and perhaps any generation. She had a little hiccup last year, when longtime friend Rosa DeLauro snapped that Pelosi had lost her feel for the caucus in trying to ease the path for the president’s trade agenda in the House.
But she’s the one who carried Obamacare across the floor on her back; who put up votes for the 2008 financial bailout when most Republicans bailed out on the country; and the one who forced Republicans to hold open a Medicare Part D vote for three hours while they twisted arms to finally pass it the next morning.
Whether or not those were the right calls on policy, each showed her skill and tenacity in pushing members of her caucus to vote with her when it would have been easier to flip to the other side.
Compared to those heavy lifts, winning another intraparty vote to run the caucus was child’s play for Pelosi. In service of her campaign against Tim Ryan, whose Ohio district is the avatar of white working-class Rust Belt politics, she even dusted off the old chestnut of promising the next generation more seats at the leadership table. She used that in 2014 after historic Republican gains and in 2010 after she lost the House and her speakership in a midterm election that the GOP made about her.
Why is she so good at counting votes? Basic constituency politics. She rewards those who are loyal to her, punishes those who aren’t and keeps an open mind for onetime adversaries who change their tune. She kept a vendetta running against then-Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, the powerful former Commerce Committee chairman, for more than a decade. She backed his primary challenger in 2002 and then supported ally Henry Waxman’s successful push to take Dingell’s gavel.
Then, there’s the money. Pelosi raises far more campaign cash than any other House Democrat, and she spreads it far and wide. That comes in handy when members of a caucus are weighing candidates.
More important — and this is so rare among political leaders — Pelosi is wrapped in dignity and humility. The latter is particularly important when you’re campaigning for votes among elected officials. They have good B.S. meters and they don’t like to vote for egomaniacs. Look at the recent House speakers: Ryan, Boehner, Pelosi and Hastert. It’s been a while since someone with an outsized ego got elected to that post.
The dignity part is essential because it’s so undignified to be in the minority in the House. All the perks go to the other side. The minority is almost reduced to furniture. Pelosi’s head never hangs. She’s never defeated. She leads by example, giving a model for how members of the minority party can keep pushing on policy and politics even when they know they will lose most battles.
It’s not hard to see why Pelosi remains in office. It’s hard to see how anyone could displace her. There are only two explanations for someone running against her at all: They’re either not politically savvy enough to understand what they’re doing, or — like Tim Ryan, who may run for governor of Ohio in 2018 — they are trying to position themselves as anti-Pelosi Democrats.
Pelosi will be around as long as she wants — and no matter how much she may be the wrong public face for the party. It’s her mountain, and she doesn’t have to give it up. But if she really puts the goals of the party and the country above her own ambition, she’ll step down soon.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.