This November, four years into the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century, tens of millions of Americans will go to the polls. At a federal level, they will vote for 435 representatives and one-third of the Senate. And, when the votes are counted, America and its increasingly angry, despairing, pessimistic electorate will have opted for a continuation of Democratic Party policies or for a return to a more conservative, Republican control of Congress. This decision will, in large measure, write the next chapter in the country's increasingly fractious political story.
For Nancy Pelosi — Speaker of the House of Representatives, San Francisco's most influential politician, and the most powerful female political figure in American history — the stakes couldn't be higher.
Pelosi was elected to Congress in 1987, and has been Speaker for four years. During that time she has pushed for big-picture legislation such as a higher minimum wage, comprehensive health care reform, a major package of new regulations for the country's financial system, and an overhaul of the student loan system. She has prodded Congress to act (albeit somewhat half-heartedly) on climate change, and was instrumental in passing a rescue plan for the banking system followed by a massive stimulus package to try to stabilize an imploding economy and stem an unemployment disaster. More recently, she called the House back into emergency session to pass a multi-billion-dollar aid package to the states, designed to keep pink-slipped teachers employed.
Regarding the largest of these reforms, the health care overhaul, Rep. Chris van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, says Pelosi "literally lifted the health care bill from the ashes. She sounded the trumpet and charged."
Now, though, despite the frenetic legislative pace of the past few years — maybe even because of it — her legacy is on the line.
The Democrats hold 255 seats. Most polls suggest that they will do pretty badly in November, especially in conservative areas such as the Deep South, where Democratic congressional candidates made considerable inroads in 2006 and 2008. The question is how badly. If enough voters react against activist, New Deal–hued government — or against incumbency per se — and the Democrats lose 38 representatives, they lose their majority, and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who labeled health care reform "apocalyptic" — will become the next speaker. If that happens, Pelosi risks witnessing not just the collapse of her agenda, but also the dismantlement of the reforms she has managed to pass since becoming speaker in January 2007.
"Our challenge in this election is to make it clear people have a choice about two ways forward," van Hollen says. "The Republican platform is to turn back the clock to the policies that got us into this mess in the first place."
Or as Pelosi, never one to shy away from a chance to needle the GOP, told ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour on Aug. 1, "The Republicans are here for the special interests; we're here for the people's interests. This isn't about interparty bickering. This is about a major philosophical difference as to whose side you're on."
Of course, in this season of discontent, it is also about a generalized voter distaste for the status quo and for those in positions of power. That is magnified by the fact that so much major legislation passes in the House, only to end up sidelined in the Senate, where Republicans and a handful of Blue Dog Democrats frequently hold bills hostage to the threat of filibuster. More than 300 bills passed by the House, including major climate change and energy legislation, lie dormant in the upper chamber.
The Senate has also been remarkably sluggish when it comes to extending benefits for the long-term unemployed. Pelosi's onetime S.F. mentor, former Rep. John Burton, says pithily, "You have to get 60 votes to take a shit!"
All of this is grist to the mill for those voters who believe Washington is broken; that it is undermined by hyperpartisanship and incapable of reinventing itself to meet the needs of the early 21st century; and that power inevitably, and quickly, corrupts. That voter distaste cost Republicans the presidency in 2008; it could well cost Democrats the control of Congress in 2010, and Pelosi her job.
But if Pelosi manages to shepherd her party to a third congressional election victory in a row, she will have bucked a powerful historical trend.
She certainly believes she has a shot at doing so. On Aug. 18, she joined Mayor Gavin Newsom and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at a ceremony to officially consummate the Navy's sale of Treasure Island to San Francisco. Afterward, she answered questions about the project as she stood beside Mabus in front of flapping American flags.
When SF Weekly asked whether she had concerns about the Democratic Party's chances in the upcoming election, she responded in her controlled and unflinching style: "Our concerns are what they always are in elections. You have to get up, work hard, campaign. I know we will be victorious in November."
But even in good times, voters frequently give the president's party a bloody nose in the midterm elections. In bad times, the incumbent party is often trounced. If, despite the general sense of angst, Pelosi pulls off a win, it would secure her reputation as one of the most strategically adept Speakers of the past century.
The leader of the House is endlessly energetic. She prefers stairs to elevators; an unobtrusive back stairway leads from her ornate second-floor office to the main level, entering the ground floor near the statue-adorned circular "crypt" under the building's majestic dome. She routinely bounces from meeting to meeting for hours on end without flagging, often leaving her younger staff struggling to keep pace. On airplanes, she will frequently spend the trip writing hundreds of thank-you notes to members of Congress who have voted for her big bills. She knows all their names and salient details about their lives.
On weekends, when she returns to her husband, Paul, in San Francisco, she visits local organizations, like the Neighborhood Centers in the Mission, run by her longtime friend Santiago Ruiz. "She's speaker, but she won't forget who Santiago Ruiz is," he says. When she invited him to Washington to meet visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderón, she introduced him by announcing, "This is Santiago Ruiz. We call him Sam. From the Neighborhood Center."