In Nancy Pelosi’s office, steps away from the House floor, there’s a mahogany cabinet that encloses four separate television screens. They’re tuned to the cable-news networks and C-SPAN at all times.
Leaning against that cabinet is a stack of baseball bats. It’s the bats, not the screens, that tell the story of Pelosi’s approach to leadership, including maintaining her own in the Democratic caucus.
I frequently sat in Pelosi’s office when I was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in 2012 and again in 2014. I watched her negotiate legislation, manage disparate factions of her caucus, and contemplate her future. There was always an amply filled bowl of Ghirardelli chocolates on an end table. And off to the side, in my peripheral vision, were those bats. The message was clear: We can achieve our goals pleasantly or unpleasantly, but we will achieve our goals.
The bats are not entirely symbolic. Most people don’t know that Pelosi is an avid sports fan, particularly of the San Francisco Giants. In fact, the only argument I ever saw her lose was over sports. I sat next to her at the final game of the 2013 World Series at Boston’s Fenway Park. In the seventh inning, on the verge of victory, Red Sox fans became so raucous that Pelosi’s security detail wanted to move us out. Pelosi insisted on remaining until the game ended. The Red Sox won the game, but she lost the argument. We left early.
In sports and in politics, Pelosi enjoys winning. This week, she guided her caucus to the ultimate victory: a House Democratic majority and an end to Donald Trump’s rubber-stamp Congress. The path included navigating around a dozen or so incumbents and first-time candidates who indicated they wouldn’t support her for speaker and millions of dollars’ worth of Republican ads that cast her as an immigrant-caravan-loving, gun-confiscating, tax-hiking San Francisco socialist.
Over the next several days, House Democrats, including some of those incumbents and first-timers who spoke out against Pelosi, will find themselves sitting in her office, enjoying those chocolates while warily eyeing the bats.
Here’s why, whatever they said on the campaign trail, Democrats should vote to keep Pelosi as the leader of their new majority.
First, she’s already demonstrated the ability to stand up to a Republican White House and Republican Senate while also negotiating agreements that advance Democratic values. In September 2017, Pelosi outsmarted congressional Republicans and averted a fiscal crisis by building a bipartisan coalition with Trump that increased the debt ceiling, funded Hurricane Harvey relief, and kept the government running. Republicans went into negotiations expecting maximum leverage, but suddenly found the rug pulled out from under them.
The question for Pelosi’s critics is: Who else can do that?
Second, a demotion for Pelosi would make for a rather odd coda to what David Wasserman of “The Cook Political Report” called “the year of the fired-up woman.” The day following Trump’s inauguration, women took to the streets. Then they ran for office—with Pelosi’s explicit encouragement—reclaiming suburban districts from pro-Trump voters. They’re a big part of why Democrats did as well as they did on Tuesday. In January, the House will have more women members than ever before.
The question for Pelosi’s critics is: Why fire the top woman? Critics should also keep in mind that much of the venom directed at Pelosi—all those Republican ads about the horrors of a House led by her—are sexist, born of an anti-feminist fear of women in positions of power.
Third, there’s the fact that money matters immensely in the American election system, and Pelosi knows how to get it. In the 2018 cycle, the DCCC raised approximately $270 million. Pelosi personally raised nearly half of that total: $129 million. Much of that money came from donors who believe in Pelosi and in her ability to lead. Heading into 2020, when House Democrats will need to protect their gains, they’ll want a proven rainmaker. Conversely, Pelosi has the strategic and tactical legislative skills necessary to pass some version of campaign-finance reform, which would reduce the role of money in politics.
The question for Pelosi’s critics is: Does anyone else even have a shot at bringing money in and stanching the need for money at the same time?
Sometime between Thanksgiving and early December, newly elected and reelected House Democrats will gather in the harshly lit Democratic-caucus room, several floors beneath the Capitol building. They’ll sit on uncomfortable mesh chairs, balancing on their lap paper plates with pizza or salad dispensed from serving trays in the rear of the room. Candidates for speaker, majority leader, majority whip, DCCC chair, and other positions will make their pitch. Members and members-elect will receive paper ballots, check their preferences, and deposit their ballots in cardboard boxes. After tally counters inspect each ballot, the caucus will learn the identity of the probable next speaker, before an official vote is taken by the full House on January 3. Some members will be influenced by those grainy attack ads on Pelosi, funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee or by Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund.
But it’s not up to Republicans to choose the Democrats’ leader. It’s up to Democrats.
Their best choice is Nancy Pelosi, bats and all.