House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who announced she’d step down from leading the House Democrats on Thursday, made history as the first woman to ever hold the position and was a political target — and thorn in the side — of Republicans for the better part of two decades. All that frequently obscured her mastery of her job and her singular skills as a legislator, according to Molly Ball, a Time political correspondent and author of the biography Pelosi.
Pelosi has been central to many of Democrats’ biggest policy wins in recent years. She kept a divided caucus unified to pass landmark bills, including the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank banking reforms, and the American Rescue Plan. She won so many concessions from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Covid-19 relief that he had to be pulled from the talks, according to Ball. And she’s corralled members time and again when the party seemed on the verge of fracturing over their differences.
“Here’s someone who had a 30-year career being the force behind all kinds of major legislation and liberal accomplishments in the House, chief among them the ACA. But when people talked about her, the only thing they seemed to talk about was just how disliked she was,” says Ball of the misconceptions people held of Pelosi when she first began reporting on the speaker.
Ball sat down with Vox to walk through the policy legacy Pelosi leaves, and the unique, historic path she carved for herself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to writing a book about Pelosi — and what surprised you in the process?
It was one of my first assignments when I joined Time magazine in 2017. I was not actually super psyched or inspired to write about her. I think, like a lot of people, I had in my mind the caricature of her as this static establishment figure who didn’t seem particularly exciting. And it was only in digging into her backstory that I came to appreciate what a remarkable human being she really is. What surprised me was that the perception of her for so long overshadowed the person that she is, and obscured the reality of her accomplishments.
If you think back to 2017, 2018, Democrats were in the minority and had been since 2010. She was under a lot of pressure, increasingly seen as this ineffective anachronism, this throwback to the past; she was clinging to power, she refused to go away. And there were a lot of Democrats who were agitating for her to move on, saying that because of the way that she’d been vilified by the Republicans, put in all those attack ads, that she was a big political problem for the party.
Here’s someone who had a 30-year career being the force behind all kinds of major legislation and liberal accomplishments in the House, chief among them the Affordable Care Act. But when people talked about her, the only thing they seemed to talk about was just how disliked she was.
And so starting with that piece, I undertook a feminist revision of her image, just making the case that particularly in 2018, which was the year that the Women’s March came to political fruition, there was this huge outpouring of women’s mobilization and women running for office, and women getting involved in politics spurred on by Donald Trump. And so it was fitting, I thought, that it would be that women’s wave that restored the first woman speaker to her historical position, leading the Democrats in the House. And then, Trump went on to make her look good and I think a lot of Democrats really appreciated the qualities she brought to the table.
The things that she’s good at, they’re not necessarily the public-facing things. She’s not a great speechmaker, she doesn’t give inspiring speeches or sweep anybody off their feet. But [she’s really good at] the legislative blocking and tackling. Running the House of Representatives is an incredibly difficult and complicated and specific job. And she seems to have a specific skill set for it that is really rare.
Can you talk a little bit more about that skill set and what she brings to it that is truly unique?
First is just managing the caucus, which she makes it look easy, but the Democratic majority is geographically, ideologically, generationally, ethnically diverse in all kinds of ways. And I argue that a lot of the skills that she brings to the table actually come from her background as a housewife and a young mother, when she spent 20 years raising children before she ran for office.
And as a mother of three, myself, I recognize a lot of the techniques that she used to keep those five kids in line. When she gets up in front of the Democratic caucus, the line she always uses is “our diversity is our strength, but our unity is our power.” And I’ve actually used that line on my kids to put their shoes on and get in the minivan.
There’s negotiating with the other side. There’s counting votes, all of these things she’s legendarily good at, and there’s various little tips and tricks that she keeps in her bag. But more than any specific technique, I really came to believe that she just has an incredible understanding of human nature, she just knows each one of her 220-odd members, knows what makes them tick.
Not only does she remember what district they’re from, and what their family is like, and what they care about, and what committees they want to be on, and who they might be feuding with at any given moment in time, and so on and so forth. But she really just understands what motivates people. And so she’s able to put pressure on people when she needs to and ask for favors and give out favors in return. And that’s made her incredibly effective.
Could you talk about some of the key policies where she was forced to keep a very disparate caucus together, as well as the tactics she used to maintain that unity?
Obamacare is the big one. And her role in it has been neglected over the years. When President Obama put out his memoir a few years ago, I searched the chapter on Obamacare, and she’s barely mentioned, because so much of the drama on Capitol Hill around passing Obamacare was whether they could get that last vote in the Senate. I think, because she often makes it look easy, people don’t necessarily appreciate how difficult her job is.
But there were times when there were 60 Democratic votes that she had to get off the fence and instead of delegating to a team of whips or whatever, she would just take that list and literally spend all night just sitting up calling her members one by one and letting them talk for as long as they needed to. The therapy sessions or prayer sessions, sometimes, where you just have to let people wear themselves out until they come around to your position.
She knows what’s out there in the universe that she can summon to aid her in these fights. For example, Joe Donnelly was a congressman from Indiana at the time, a conservative Democrat; she needed his vote and she knew that she wasn’t going to get it out of him. But she also knew that he, like her, was a very devout Catholic and she had the president of Notre Dame call him and put pressure on him.
Then there’s this climactic final scene before the House passage where she couldn’t get the Catholic Church to budge on a abortion provision. And so she had to have a long talk with the pro-choice women in the Democratic caucus — some of her most stalwart allies, strong liberal feminists, many of whom had been motivated by the abortion issue to get into politics. And just had to sit there with them over cheeseburgers, I believe, and go over that whip count until they came to the same realization she had, that they were just going to have to suck it up and vote for this thing that they really didn’t like.
Are there examples of when lawmakers have either challenged her or when you’ve seen her wield power and influence in a way to counter that opposition?
For the most part, it is certainly the case that people fear her. But she’s like the Catholic mother who just has to give you a look and that’s punishment enough, right?
She doesn’t really punish people because she’d rather keep them on her side for the next thing. So if you do something to cross her, it benefits her more to keep you in the tent owing her something than to punish you and cast you out. Now, there’s certainly exceptions to that. And there have certainly been members who’ve gotten into sort of her permanent doghouse, particularly some of the ones who tried to take her out in 2018. But for the most part, that’s not her style.
Her members know that she’s watching their every move, and that if they do anything without her sanction, they’re going to hear about it from her.
How have you seen gender affect how Pelosi was treated in Congress and by the media, and just general perceptions people have of her strength as a leader?
I think people don’t fully appreciate how much she really had to break into the male-dominated Democratic establishment against their will. When she got to Congress in 1987, out of 435 members of the House of Representatives, there were 23 women on both sides of the aisle. And particularly because she was this wealthy housewife from San Francisco, people were inclined to not take her seriously. She seemed almost like a bimbo to some of the older, crustier male members of the House. So she really had to prove herself as a serious legislator and a force to be reckoned with, in order to overcome that.
Pelosi has [also] always been unapologetically feminine. And whether that’s just her wanting to be unapologetically who she is, or whether it is even a sort of disarming tactic, she doesn’t threaten people’s stereotypes of what it means to be a woman. And maybe that makes it easier for them to tolerate a woman in a position of power the way that she is.
One of the interesting things related to the ACA fight is the comment that Pelosi made about how the president could either get it done or be beloved, but not both. And I was wondering if you could talk about what shaped Pelosi’s thinking about politics in this way, and how you’ve seen her apply it?
She and Obama both believed from the beginning of that fight that there was a very good chance that they would pay a political price for it, but that it would be worth it, that it was just that important to get health care done.
So she’s willing to pay a political price to get things done, because it’s the results that matter to her. And she ultimately was willing to lose the speakership if it meant that Americans would have health care in perpetuity.
The word that one of her mentors always used for her was “operational.” And I really think that word is the Rosetta Stone to her mindset, because she is always focused on the result, always focused on the goal. And she really is not interested in people’s perceptions. Even when it leads to her being deeply hated by large segments of the electorate.
She just doesn’t view it as material to her goals, as long as she can keep getting reelected in her district, as long as her members of the Democratic caucus support her. And as long as she has the power internally to pass legislation and achieve her goals. That’s what she’s focused on. And the other stuff just seems like noise.
What are your thoughts on Pelosi’s decision to step down at this moment and how she’s handling this transition of power?
She’s been thinking about stepping down for a long time, but she hasn’t been able to bring herself to do it. And I think some of her critics might see that as part of her controlling nature. She is someone who likes to be in control of absolutely everything. She was never going to do this on somebody else’s terms.
She didn’t want to feel like she was being forced out. She didn’t want to leave as a loser, basically. And the Democrats did lose the House in this election, and she would be forced from the speakership, whether she wanted to or not. But I think because the result was so much better for Democrats than anybody expected, and because the nature of the result was seen as a repudiation of some of what she views as the most toxic aspects of the contemporary Republican Party — I think she drew great satisfaction from that and was able to view it as almost leaving on a victorious note.
When I interviewed her, when I spoke with her [Thursday], immediately after her floor speech, she did talk about the election as if it had been a victory.
She still isn’t leaving Congress, so I think she’s had a really hard time letting go. Something that one of her former aides said to me once, that I’ve also seen as a key to her personality, was, “Everything she does is motivated by a combination of obligation and entitlement.”
And I don’t necessarily mean entitlement in a bad way. It’s like a confidence where she looks around and she says, “Well, somebody has to do this.” And then she doesn’t see anyone else that she thinks can do it. And so it falls to her. And so she can’t quite walk away. So she’s halfway there. We’ll see if she gets there over the next couple of years.