In November 2018, soon after the mid-term elections when the Democrats regained majority in the House of Representatives, a group of Democrats circulated a letter calling for a change of leadership. The letter thanked Nancy Pelosi — leader of the House Democratic Caucus since 2003 — “for her years of service to our country” and said that “the time has come for new leadership in our Caucus”. Noting that “Democrats ran and won on a message of change”, the signatories said they had promised their voters they will “change the status quo, and we intend to deliver on that promise”.
This represented the first open challenge to Ms. Pelosi’s leadership of the Democratic Party. Yet, the letter did not name an alternative leader. In other words, even those who wanted her gone did not believe they could take her on and win. Hence a fishing expedition of a letter, put out in the hope that Ms. Pelosi would see it, get the message, and perhaps go away on her own. But Ms. Pelosi would not go away. She went on to be reelected as Speaker in January 2019, and again in 2021 for a record fourth time.
Now 82-years-old, Ms. Pelosi — the first woman in American history to lead a party in Congress, and the first woman Speaker of the House — has seen several Presidents come and go. From the time of George W. Bush, through the Barack Obama and Donald Trump Presidencies, there wasn’t a big-ticket legislation that could have made it through Congress without her help. When Mr. Obama had lost all hope of getting his signature Affordable Care Act passed, it was Ms. Pelosi who, as House Speaker, somehow mobilised the numbers to make it happen.
Her skills as a wheeler-dealer adept at floor management came to the fore even when her party was ‘in the Opposition’, as it were — for she could also deploy those skills to frustrate a Republican President, as she did when she repeatedly blocked funding for Mr. Trump’s bid to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. Of course, she is best known for taking on Mr. Trump — both by trolling him regularly, and by getting him impeached, twice. Given that it was a foregone conclusion that Mr. Trump would be acquitted by the Republican-controlled Senate, Ms. Pelosi’s handling of the impeachment process was a political master class. She controlled both the timing — she resisted calls from her own party colleagues to launch an impeachment inquiry for the longest time — and the timeline in such a way that Mr. Trump got minimal electoral mileage from it.
How good she really is becomes clear in a comparison with her predecessors from the Republican Party who, despite holding majorities, often failed to get their Bills passed, which rarely, if ever, happened under Ms. Pelosi’s legislature leadership. The Democratic Party is a roiling cauldron of diverse identity, political and interest groups. To get them all to vote together time and again, and also get a few Republicans on board to make up the numbers, is not an easy task, which probably explains her longevity. With her deputies also in their early eighties, two things are clear: the Democrats need a change in leadership, and Ms. Pelosi is not easily replaceable. The 2018 letter was a symptom of this contradiction, and with four years having gone by, the Democrats don’t have much time to resolve it.
In the meantime, there are mid-term elections to deal with and the Democrats’ prospects have looked grim. President Joe Biden’s ratings have plummeted. Ms. Pelosi, the other big face of the Democratic Party, is a liberal from California — one of a kind derisively labelled by the right wing as ‘limousine liberals’, given their penchant for espousing progressive values to the 99% while ensconced in the extreme wealth of the 1%.
Born in 1940 in an influential family — her father Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. was the Mayor of Baltimore and a Congressman — a political career for Ms. Pelosi was always on the cards. TIME magazine journalist Molly Ball, in her book on Ms. Pelosi writes, “When she first set foot in Capitol’s marble hallways, she was six-year-old Nancy D’Alesandro, a little girl from Baltimore, watching her father get sworn in for his fifth term as a member of Congress.” With an estimated net worth of $135 million, Ms. Pelosi has consistently figured in the list of wealthiest members of Congress. At the same time, she has a long track record of supporting what she describes as “core democratic values”, which include human rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, a measure of social security, and stricter gun control regulations.
With rising inequality, and sharpening divide between rural America and the urban elites, the generational wealth and political privilege that Ms. Pelosi embodies — especially when bracketed with her liberal agenda — has made her an easy target for the right wing. When the backlash to ‘Obamacare’ came, it was Ms. Pelosi who was targeted by the Republicans, whose 2010 mid-term campaign involved a 117-city ‘Fire Pelosi’ bus tour and featured giant cut-outs that, as Ms. Ball puts it, depicted “her as a rampaging fifty-foot-tall giantess”. Targeting Ms. Pelosi worked. The Republicans regained control of Congress. But Ms. Pelosi, far from quitting, hunkered down.
As a master tactician and gifted fund-raiser who revelled in wielding power from behind the scenes, she has deployed her human rights card with characteristic shrewdness. She played it with aplomb in 1991 when she embarrassed the Chinese leadership by unfurling a banner in the Tiananmen Square honouring pro-democracy protesters. She followed it up with regular meetings with exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. She piloted legislation supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. She called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics over the treatment of Uighur Muslims, and got it. But her human rights card — assuming it is one based on principle — has never come out in support of the Palestinians, whose miseries in an apartheid state are copiously documented.
The trip to Taiwan
Against this background, how does one read Ms. Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, carried out in the teeth of fierce Chinese opposition? The argument the White House tried to sell to China — that she is not a part of the Biden administration and therefore her visit does not reflect U.S. foreign policy — was never going to work. The Washington establishment knew the Chinese wouldn’t buy it. But she was allowed to go ahead with the visit anyway. One can only conjecture on the reasons why.
First, of course, is domestic politics. Anti-China sentiment has been growing among Americans. Recent polls suggest that while 82% have a negative view of China, 69% believe the U.S. should recognise Taiwan as an independent nation. The Republicans have traditionally monopolised the politics of ‘toughness’ — a core American value, especially in the rust belt. For Democrats, however, displaying toughness on the foreign policy front is a relatively easier win compared to, say, passing the Medicare for All Act, which is still pending before different committees.
It was on the eve of the 100-day countdown to the mid-terms polls that the Biden administration took down al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. The timing of the Taiwan visit — there was no substantive reason why it had to happen when it did — has raised speculations that it could have been done with an eye on the mid-terms. Almost on cue, poll ratings for Democrats have begun to look up.
It shouldn’t be too surprising if Ms. Pelosi — like she did in 2018 — manages to get the Democrats over the line one more time. But even if she doesn’t, in being singled out for sanctions by China, she has found a befitting coda to her China-focussed human rights legacy.