Her four terms as speaker, two under a united Democratic administration and two under Republican presidents and a divided administration, have been extremely productive. During President Barack Obama’s first term, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, she passed the Affordable Care Act into law. As her party operated with a fragile majority over the past two years, she somehow found ways to communicate liberal priorities again, sometimes with party votes and sometimes with bipartisan support.
None of this was assured. A united government was nowhere near as productive during Democratic Chairman Tom Foley’s tenure in the 1990s or under Republicans Dennis Hastert in the 2000s or Paul Ryan in the 2010s. Presidents are also important, as is the Senate, and the speaker is only the leader of the majority party. But Pelosi turned out to be a genius of process and people.
When she brought something to the House floor, everyone knew she had the votes. Time and time again, she found creative ways to package the Democratic Party’s priorities so that what people thought was a lost cause ended up on the president’s desk. Notably, she managed to save the Affordable Care Act when a filibuster-proof supermajority had evaporated in the Senate by passing some parts of the bill through a procedural maneuver known as appeasement. More than a decade later, she spearheaded a massive legislative agenda, including a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act that addresses climate change, health care and other priorities.
All the procedures in the world can’t help if the voices aren’t there. But Pelosi would find a path if it wasn’t obvious. Part of this was inspiration, like when she convinced the Democratic caucus to stick with Obamacare when things looked bleak. And part of that was finding the formula that would keep each faction of its caucus on board. It helped that Democrats seemed to have trusted her word. It helped even more that Democratic lawmakers were confident enough in her abilities that there was never a stampede for the exits when times got tough.
In addition to covering the united government, Pelosi’s strongest moments were actually during her two terms with Republicans in the White House. In 2008, when the financial crisis threatened economic ruin and both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans were extremely skeptical of government intervention, Pelosi somehow managed to find the votes to pass legislation to change it. stabilize the financial system.
In 2020, faced with an indifferent Senate and a president lunching, Pelosi pushed for a strong government response to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
She also deserves credit for silencing Democratic calls for President George W. Bush’s retaliatory impeachment in 2007. She was also unwilling to harm the nation by trying to force a withdrawal from Iraq; she strongly opposed the war, but knew that the Democrats did not have the votes to win that battle. There are liberals who feel she acted far too slowly on the impeachments of President Donald Trump which she eventually supported, but she was right in forcing supporters to wait until the facts absolutely demanded action instead of jumping at the first sign of legitimate justification.
And as the first woman to hold the speakership, she presided over an institution that saw the number of women representatives soar during her tenure to more than 120 today. Not only did Pelosi symbolize the new diverse Democratic caucus; she worked to make it happen.
Was she flawless? No. Aside from occasional missteps, the most justifiable criticism of her tenure was that she continued a long-standing shift toward greater centralization in the House, which reduced substantive responsibilities for ordinary members of both parties. Pelosi perfected the modern, powerful speakership invented by Democrat Tip O’Neill during the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations.
Since O’Neill, most speakers have been either too glorifying (like Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich) or too passive (Foley and Hastert). Republican John Boehner got the balance right, but couldn’t take his party with him. Pelosi didn’t have that problem. Yet the House of Representatives as a whole functions better and is more powerful when it unleashes the capabilities of all members, especially those of the majority party. In that regard, her tenure has not been particularly good for the health of the House.
Her skill and achievements as a speaker are hard to argue with, regardless of one’s political views. Whether the policies she supported and, in many cases, enacted were the right thing is a debate that Democrats and Republicans think differently about.
But if the question is whether she was good at her job, the only answer is that she was good at it. Very probably the best ever.
More from Bloomberg’s opinion:
• Nancy Pelosi will be hard to follow: Matthew Yglesias
• Trump is on the defensive for the first time in years: Ramesh Ponnuru
• Democrats in Array? It’s hard to deny after the midterm elections: Francis Wilkinson
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion