November 18, 2022 - 10:06am

This Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her retirement as leader of the House Democratic caucus. One of the most powerful and polarising figures in recent political history — and undoubtedly the most powerful woman in the history of American politics — Pelosi dutifully advanced the interests of her party while her businessman husband Paul amassed a $160 million fortune during her four decades in office. Although she didn’t cite the recent home invasion that led to Paul’s injuries as a cause for stepping down, she told CNN last Sunday that any decision to run “is about family” as well as her colleagues. 

Along with Pelosi, 83-year-old House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and 82-year-old House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said they would not seek reelection to their leadership roles. Their departures constitute a near-complete refresh of the gerontocratic leadership of the Democratic party, leaving behind only President Joe Biden, 80 this weekend, who appears likely to run for reelection in 2024, and the relatively youthful 72-year-old Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer. 

There are a host of reasons for critics to attack Pelosi’s record, but when it came to the core legislative role — fundraising and helping her colleagues with their fundraising to prepare for biennial elections — she was nearly without equal for decades. When I interviewed former Florida Congressman Ric Keller last month, he noted that the leadership roles in both parties coincided almost exactly with their election fundraising. Pelosi and former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner were, Keller said, the two greatest fundraisers during his eight years in Congress — a status Pelosi has continued to hold, raising nearly $23 million in the 2022 midterms and $27 million in 2020. During that time, only Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also a California representative, has raised more. 

Pelosi managed a delicate balancing act during her 19 years as leader of the House Democratic Caucus. To most Republicans, she was an unhinged Leftist, shepherding what they might describe as “radical” Obama-era legislation related to government-subsidised health insurance; the repeal of a prior “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule that barred openly LGBT individuals from serving in the military; implementing financial regulatory reforms in the aftermath of the Great Recession; and leading the push to impeach then-President Donald Trump in 2019 and 2021. To people on the far Left, she was an unabashed reactionary, failing to support or perhaps even stymying single-payer healthcare, universal basic income, a dramatic overhaul of immigration policy, and other progressive measures. 

A single example that captures how challenging the maintenance of this balance was, and how awkward its results could be, involved a memorable June 2020 moment when Pelosi and Democratic lawmakers donned kente cloth given to them by the Congressional Black Caucus, then knelt in silence for George Floyd. Many on the Right and far Left ridiculed the mawkishness of the moment, but Pelosi was simply doing her part to publicise the proposal of legislation aimed at reforming the police. Taking a knee hardly marked her as some great innovator or radical, merely the head party operative making a gesture that she and her aides likely thought would meet the approval of various constituencies that comprised the party’s base. This is merely what many large businesses and sports leagues were doing for their audiences

As of this writing, New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries has emerged as the frontrunner to replace Pelosi. Jeffries, who is the nephew of controversial former City University of New York Professor and “melanin theorist” Leonard Jeffries, is mostly in tune with the party’s stances on racial and LGBT issues, but is firmly pro-Israel, and has opposed an amendment that would have limited sales of oil transported on the Keystone XL pipeline. 

In other words, Jeffries appears capable of balancing corporate interests with social justice initiatives, something at which Pelosi excelled. How long he, or anyone else, can last in such a powerful but thankless role is anyone’s guess. For good or ill, a legendary legislator like Pelosi, who blended the patronage politics of former Speaker Tip O’Neill with the woke shibboleths needed to win the votes of Gen Z, is a hard act to follow. 

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work