Nancy Pelosi, Speaker Emeritus?

Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to walk onto House floor this afternoon to take her final bow after 19 years as head of the Democratic caucus. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
November 17, 2022

Sometime around noon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will walk out onto the House floor to take her final bow after 19 years as head of the Democratic caucus with a speech about passing the torch from one generation to the next, I’m told. But instead of riding high into retirement, as has long been assumed, or becoming ambassador to Italy—a diplomatic posting the White House has been holding open for her—Pelosi will announce that she plans to stay in Congress as a backbencher, roaming the halls in a sort of emeritus role and helping to guide Democrats through their turn in the minority. 

The decision to step down from leadership was reached over the weekend, as I reported on Monday, after Pelosi crafted a retirement speech with the help of the celebrity historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham, a favorite of the Democratic elite, including Joe Biden, for exactly these types of moments. I was told there were multiple drafts of the speech, signifying Pelosi’s indecision and the fluidity of the midterm election results.

But the decision to stay on as a backbencher was only reached days ago. On Wednesday, the move was floated in the New York Times under the headline “Will Pelosi Stay or Will She Go? Perhaps a Little Bit of Both.” By that point, I’m told, Pelosi had torn up the Meacham draft, repurposing the best pieces of it for her own handcrafted speech that threads the needle to account for her post-speakership, chairman-like role. 

Pelosi spent the last 24 hours helping to clear the runway for Hakeem Jeffries, I’m told, while working out ways to make sure that Adam Schiff, one of her pets, is taken care of and is therefore not inclined to challenge Jeffries. Politico reported that he intends to focus on a run for Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat. An orderly succession has always been Pelosi’s goal. “It may seem like she’s backbench but it’s really putting the throne in a different area,” said a Pelosi insider. “She’ll never get off the throne.” 

But why stay in Congress without power? Well, first of all, there is a very slim Republican majority, with the G.O.P. expected to have just a single-digit seat advantage. If Pelosi announced her retirement, her San Francisco seat would quickly be filled with a reliable Democrat, and she could likely stay on until that election, meaning that the Democrats wouldn’t risk a critical vote. 

Instead, Pelosi, who sees the role as vocational, will be there to steer her caucus from behind the scenes and play a role in her own succession in real time. “Given that she really didn’t lose the election and that the majority of her caucus is still obsessively in need of her leadership, she’s decided to stay,” said the insider. “Plus she can still raise a shit-ton of money unlike anyone else in that caucus.” 

She’ll also be on hand to help guide Jeffries and his expected lieutenants Katherine Clark and Peter Aguilar into their new roles. There’s been concern caucus-wide about how Jeffries might manage “The Squad,” whom Pelosi has been able to keep in line with a deft touch, whereas Jeffries has a reputation for dunking on the progressive wing when their candidates lose in primaries. “She’ll be a critical pair of training wheels,” the insider said.

Another Democratic consultant, close to some blue dog members, said that many Democrats are in unknown territory with margins this slim. Indeed, even many Democrats who initially didn’t support Pelosi’s leadership in 2018 have since seen the value in having her remain in a leadership role to manage future speaker Kevin McCarthy and his raucous caucus. 

Without her, they fear that “Dems in disarray” could become a distracting counter-narrative to McCarthy’s inevitably chaotic leadership as Republicans unleash full-scale investigations into the Biden administration and his family, not to mention a looming debt-ceiling fight that McCarthy, himself, would rather avoid. “Keeping everyone quiet and not spooking the horse is the name of the game right now,” the consultant said. “They’re going to go off the deep end.”

Of course, not everyone was begging Pelosi to stay. One member told me that a number of younger members met this week to discuss their concern that Pelosi was holding the party’s future leadership hostage by not intimating which way she planned to go. After nearly two decades atop the caucus, an epoch in which Pelosi was widely regarded for her legislative accomplishments and historic contributions to the party, some felt the timing was right for her to step aside and allow the succession race to play out on its own terms.

But why not take off for Italy? As I reported this week, Pelosi has become less interested in the Italy posting, even though she knows the ins and outs of the wine cellar of the residency, and may have fantasized about the idea of it. There’s also her fellow octogenarians in the background, her No. 2, Steny Hoyer, and her No. 3, Jim Clyburn, who had made it clear that they wouldn’t necessarily retire or step down from leadership along with her. As I reported this summer, Pelosi has long thought it was sexist that she would have to step down from leadership first, as they fight for some sort of honorary titles. 

Now she can remain in Congress as an emeritus icon, resolving her concern about bowing out first. “She’s not a loser walking around Congress, she’s a winner with the House being Republican and by such a small margin,” said the Pelosi insider. “When it all burns down, Nancy Pelosi can walk through the halls with grace.” 

Finishing out her term, as I’m told she intends to do, gives her daughter Christine Pelosi time to potentially mount a credible campaign for her seat, rather than scrambling in a snap special election where she would be vulnerable to accusations of nepotism. And perhaps this graceful swan song is also a not-so-subtle nod to Biden, who reportedly asked her to stay this week, that it’s time to pass the baton to the next generation. After all, it was the youth vote that helped hold back the red wave. 

When Losing Is Winning for Rick Scott

In the end, Rick Scott’s challenge to Mitch McConnell’s Senate leadership was pretty pathetic, garnering only 10 votes, but this contest wasn’t about winning for Scott. Minority Leader is a horrible job, after all, and one that gets you nowhere closer to the White House—a prize Scott has openly coveted, to the amusement of his critics—and certainly doesn’t help your brand as an establishment outsider. But the challenge made some sense as a finger-pointing, brand-elevating exercise for the Florida senator. And on that level, it was a success, generating the desired headlines indicating McConnell’s culpability in the G.O.P.’s miserable midterm showing—and distracting blame from Scott, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair who many saw as having made strategic missteps, himself.

But while Scott has tried to position himself as an outsider foil to McConnell, inside the dome, Scott is quietly even more disliked by his colleagues as a know-it-all businessman who won’t play their Washington way, which explains why he would have never won a leadership fight, the ultimate insider’s game. Even choosing Ron Johnson to nominate him was seen as a mistake, since Johnson has a similarly ornery reputation and not too many friends. (For more reading on how Scott managed to piss off everyone since he blew into Washington two years ago, please read “How to Lose Friends and Alienate D.C.”)

So running against McConnell was, on some level, a potentially brilliant, brand-elevating deflection mechanism after being blamed for taking expensive big bets on small donors, draining funds early on, using the N.R.S.C. to elevate his own brand with odd videos featuring himself, unveiling an unpopular agenda, and not getting involved in primaries to weed out bad candidates. As I first reported last week, Scott had a $3 million ad campaign ready to go to challenge McConnell, in which he would take him on through an outside-the-dome campaign with the support of conservative influencers and commercial airtime on Fox News. That likely didn’t happen because he was unsuccessful in delaying the leadership election. If you have a copy of that ad, please send it to me. I promise no fingerprints.