The job that Nancy Pelosi is leaving is called Speaker of the House, but her interpretation of the role has never had much to do with decorous speech. Pelosi cajoled; she annoyed; jostled by the left-wing faction around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she rolled her eyes and sniped. According to a biography by Molly Ball, when Pelosi received a courtesy call from Condoleezza Rice in March, 2003, letting her know that troops would invade Iraq that night, the California congresswoman, who had helped organize liberal antiwar opposition, asked, “Why now?” (Great question.) When Obama’s health-care plan withered in Congress, she gave the President a pep talk: “You go through the gate. If the gate’s closed, you go over the fence. If the fence is too high, we’ll pole-vault in. If that doesn’t work, we’ll parachute in.” On January 6th, speaking with Mike Pence on a phone line from one undisclosed location to another, Pelosi tore open a meat-stick wrapper with her teeth and then told the Vice-President, speaking very slowly, in order to be comprehensible between mouthfuls, “Don’t let anybody know where you are.”
Pelosi is eighty-two years old. It is time. When she gave her farewell speech shortly after the midterm elections (she is staying in Congress, but will not run again for leadership), she recalled driving up to the Capitol for the first time as a six-year-old whose father, the legendary Baltimore mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., was being sworn into Congress for a fifth term. D’Alesandro, the son of Italian immigrants, was a machine pol, who operated out of Albemarle Street in his city’s Little Italy and maintained a “favor file” of promises and debts—the sort of figure, like Pelosi herself, for whom politics often hinged less on beliefs than on mechanics, and on a sharp sense of the day’s contingencies.
But Pelosi also represented something very different: the long social turn in which the liberation movements of the nineteen-sixties became absorbed into the ethos of wealth and power. By the time she first ran for Congress, in 1986, she was nearing fifty, and was a nationally prominent fund-raiser and Party leader. When she took office, representing what she declared to be a district that was “for peace, for environmental protection, for equal rights,” there were twenty-three women in the House of Representatives; in her farewell speech, she noted that about three-quarters of House Democrats would now be women, people of color, or L.G.B.T. Progressives, especially at the outset of the Trump years, saw in her an establishmentarian fatally drawn to compromise, and conservatives, staring at the same inkblot, saw an irredeemable San Francisco radical. (Years of conservative fixation on this image, stoked by Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, probably helped inspire the maniac who broke into Pelosi’s home last month with zip ties and plans for a kidnapping, and who, when he learned that she was away, assaulted her husband with a hammer.) If Pelosi’s generation of post-sixties liberals long seemed to have a permanent grip on power—the gerontocracy—this is partly because our politics is in many ways still stuck in debates over those same liberation breakthroughs.
And yet, even as the older leaders are starting to be replaced (ignore, for a minute, the faintly nightmarish prospect of Trump, nearly eighty, and Biden, even older, mounting a 2024 debate stage), the parties aren’t exactly changing their stripes. The top (and only announced) candidate to head the House Democrats is Representative Hakeem Jeffries, of Brooklyn, a deft fifty-two-year-old politician with a centrist reputation who represents central Brooklyn and would be the first Black congressman to lead a party. Jeffries does not have much of a record as a legislative leader, but he has some of Pelosi’s symbolic facility (having famously punctuated a pro-impeachment speech by quoting Biggie Smalls). More significant, Jeffries helped create a campaign fund to defend Democratic incumbents from primary challenges on the left—a hint that he shares Pelosi’s focus on keeping his members safe from idealism-induced immolation.
Republicans had imagined that they would be swept into office by a great red wave. Instead, Pelosi’s probable replacement as House Speaker, the California Republican Kevin McCarthy, finds himself hemmed in. With a majority of just a few seats, McCarthy can’t afford to distance himself from the far-right denizens of the Freedom Caucus. The likeliest future for the new majority will feature investigations of Hunter Biden, the impeachment of at least one Cabinet secretary, a focus on border policy, and McCarthy resolutely standing beside the most conspiratorial of his members. (Marjorie Taylor Greene’s friends are reportedly already lobbying for an Oversight Committee seat.) He will be on guard against the sort of far-right revolt that has done in the last two G.O.P. Speakers, neither of whom was able to control a caucus defined by chaos.
But every caucus is pretty chaotic. Pelosi herself had a contentious left wing to contend with after the 2018 elections. Most ambitious politicians don’t mean to stay in the House for long. The Senate styles itself as a club, but the House is more like an airport lounge, everyone impatiently watching the clock and the departures board and eying the same skimpy tray of desserts. Pelosi practiced an artisanal kind of politics, handcrafted around the limitations of what was possible. The reason the Democrats have overachieved legislatively in the past couple of decades is, in part, that Pelosi managed to steer ambitious agendas through the broad window opened by Obama’s election and the narrow one opened by Biden’s, while the Republicans did very little after Trump’s.
In Pelosi’s final months as Speaker, her personal imprint on politics deepened. The references to Catholic saints grew. She slept less, or perhaps it was simply that the legend of her sleeplessness proliferated. Representative Josh Gottheimer, of New Jersey, who leads a group of centrist Democrats, recently told Politico about a late-night negotiation in which Pelosi asked him to reassemble his allies at 7 a.m. He recalled, “I said, ‘I’ll try to find them. It’s one o’clock in the morning.’ And she said, ‘Dear, I’m sure you can find them.’ ” The gerontocracy in the House has been upended, but it hasn’t given way to a tide of progressive reform, as the left had hoped, or to a grand popular revolt, as Republicans were betting on. There is, instead, a situation with which Pelosi would be familiar: a knife’s-edge margin, and a new set of contingencies. ♦