Nancy Pelosi’s Big Stick

An insider account of the Californian’s first four years as House speaker reveals how she prodded Washington’s more timid male leaders to do big things.

Originally published on August 27, 2023 in Washington Monthly

In September 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was hearing worrisome rumblings of a possible run on the San Francisco Federal Reserve. House and Senate Democrats had held hearings months before on the growing subprime mortgage crisis, but no bills had moved, the banking industry was gleefully riding the wave of booming profits, and Republicans in Congress and the George W. Bush administration were ignoring signs of trouble. On the morning of September 18, Pelosi spoke with her economic advisers, who confirmed that conditions were deteriorating fast. “The markets are frozen up,” one said. “No one wants to lend to anyone. All that can happen now is an implosion.”

Pelosi immediately called Henry Paulson, treasury secretary to Bush, requesting a meeting the next morning, a Friday. “Tomorrow will be too late,” Paulson said. “If we don’t act now, we won’t have an economy by Monday.” Alarmed, Pelosi asked, “If things are this bad, why aren’t you calling me?” Paulson answered, “The White House wouldn’t let us. They were saving the problem for the next president.”

John A. Lawrence, who served for eight years as Pelosi’s chief of staff, recounts many similar stories in his masterful book, Arc of Power. They reveal in fine-grained detail how Congress enacted a raft of monumental legislation during the four years of Pelosi’s first turn as speaker, 2007 to 2011. She succeeded under both divided government and unified Democratic control of the House, Senate, and presidency. Lawrence persuasively argues that her speakership really mattered—not because she was the first woman in the role, but because in a stunning number of instances she was the seminal figure pushing Congress and the White House to act boldly and courageously on behalf of the larger public interest. When other leaders sat on their hands, she moved decisively. When Republicans obstructed, she persisted. When the Obama White House or the Senate considered opting for incremental changes on health care, she insisted they go big. And when her Democratic members balked, she cajoled and scolded to bring them along. “Some of you are here to make a beautiful pâté,” she once chided progressives in her caucus, “but we’re making sausage most of the time.”

Republicans criticized her as “very partisan,” but she was often the first to cross the aisle, as when she called Paulson. Like other Democratic and Republican leaders, she had to wrangle with factions in her own caucus as well as with the other party and the other chamber. She was often frustrated by the Senate’s slow pace and supermajority threshold. But when necessary, she worked with Republicans, without withering, on the country’s most pressing problems. “When you are in a negotiation, the last place to get weak knees is at the end,” she said.

For anyone who is fascinated by how power operates at the top level, this book is a compelling read. Lawrence’s access was unmatched. He was also a prodigious notetaker, recording in real time more than 9,000 pages of what was said in Pelosi’s meetings and phone calls as well as conversations he himself had with chiefs of staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. A trained historian who had previously spent 30 years as chief of staff to California Democratic Representative George Miller, Lawrence instinctively knew what would matter to posterity. And most importantly, he was there in the rooms.

The book is organized around the big issues that dominated those years: economic stimulus bills, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reform, auto industry bailout, climate change, and ending U.S. involvement in Iraq. Arc of Power is not a biography of Pelosi. Her life story is well covered by the USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page’s 2021 biography, Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power, and Pelosi (2020) by Molly Ball, a national political correspondent for Time magazine. Two 2022 television specials also update Pelosi’s life into her second speakership: HBO’s Pelosi in the House,by the speaker’s daughter, the filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, and PBS Frontline’s Pelosi’s Power. While the reporters and filmmakers had varying degrees of access, they were observers, not experienced participants in events.

The narrower focus of Arc of Power allows Lawrence to dig deeply into the complex interplay of goals, personalities, intra- and interparty conflicts, personal ambitions, stakeholders, and constituencies as they shaped legislative outcomes and solidified Pelosi’s reputation. Resolving these incongruities while “retaining the integrity of what you came to Washington to accomplish,” Lawrence writes, “is what successful political leadership is all about.” Lawrence’s respect for the institutions of democracy and the people who work in them is palpable. The book is not a critique of individuals or specific legislation; it is a story about how Congress works and what motivates and drives many of the people who serve in it.

Pelosi put her stamp on the speaker’s office from the start. She outraged the powerful Energy Committee chair John Dingell by creating the non-legislative Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to address one of her policy priorities, climate change. Dingell saw it as infringing on his committee’s turf; she believed he was blocking progress. She refused to back down and eventually extended the select committee for two more years. She also instituted a new Office of Ethics; appointed more diverse staff, including the first African American clerk of the House; modified the House podium for wheelchair accessibility; and banned smoking in the lobby outside the House floor.

Her first challenge on the way to becoming speaker was to win a Democratic majority, for which she energetically strategized and campaigned in 2006. After accomplishing that and being elected speaker in January 2007, she forced through the House legislation to fulfill the Democrats’ six major campaign promises—in her first 100 hours. She had delivered, but the Senate slow-walked the bills, and few became law. As the country headed into the 2008 election, hopes were high that Democrats would claim the White House and larger congressional majorities, enabling them to overcome the obstructive tactics of Senate Republicans. But the subprime mortgage meltdown lay ahead, like a giant iceberg ready to sink the ship of state, weeks before the 2008 elections. Only the aggressive bipartisan action by Pelosi, Paulson, other congressional leaders, and the White House prevented a disaster.

When the new Congress convened in January 2009, Democrats saw what they regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact universal health care. They had Obama in the White House, a 257–178 House majority, and a nearly filibuster-proof Senate majority of 59—and briefly 60—votes in the Senate. Unlike averting the collapse of the financial system, however, expanding health care was a priority only for Democrats. The ways in which Republicans tried to stall and derail it, and Obama’s naive belief that he could win them over, repeatedly tested Pelosi’s political judgment, her philosophy of “progressive pragmatism,” and her legislative prowess. Lawrence brings the reader into many of the key meetings as strategies shift, alliances form and break apart, tempers flare. In four compelling chapters, Lawrence describes the tortuous path of reconciling ever-changing challenges from ideological factions among House Democrats, Senate Democrats and Republicans, and the White House. Proposals were always in flux, as Obama continued to seek bipartisan legislation until finally realizing that Republicans had no intention of cooperating, as Pelosi had warned him from the start.

By September, with Senate Democrats poised to lose their short-lived filibuster-proof majority in January, prospects for passing health care darkened. “What’s the best way to go?” Obama asked Pelosi in a White House strategy meeting. “Rahm [Emanuel] says we only get one bite at the apple, so we need to get to the bottom line.” “I can’t begin to say how boring it is to say we should do a small bill,” Pelosi advised the president with her usual confidence. “Let’s go for the bill we need to do!”

Pelosi was never fazed by being the only woman at the table with forceful men. In fact, she may have relished it. Certainly, growing up as a girl in a family with five older boys steeled her for whatever the men would throw at her. “Arc of power” could also describe women’s ascent in politics during the period of Pelosi’s own career. When she entered the House in 1987, only 23 of 435 House members were female; by March 2023 there were 125. There was also little organized support for women candidates. For example, EMILY’s List, today a behemoth of fund-raising and training for pro-choice Democratic women, endorsed only two candidates in the 1986 election. One of them, Barbara Mikulski, won a Senate seat. The other lost. Last year, EMILY’s List helped elect 489 women to local, state, and national office. In 2007, when Pelosi was elected the first woman speaker, the House had 76 female representatives. The galleries that night were filled with an unusually large number of women, including proud mothers of newly elected congresswomen. It was already a historic moment crackling with anticipation. Then Pelosi overturned the rules and invited the children and grandchildren of members to swarm the floor. A new era had begun, with a woman in charge.

Arc of Power foreshadows what lay ahead after Republicans won the House in 2010—intensifying polarization that made governing harder, a rise in violent political rhetoric and action, the Donald Trump presidency, the attack on the Capitol. In the midst of that, Pelosi had another four years as speaker before turning it over again to a Republican and stepping down from the Democratic leadership for good.

Lawrence has not given up hope. Members and staff, he believes, still shape effective policies and are willing to take risks, even losing reelection for what they believe. Arc of Power shows how that is done by the best of them. “Power is perishable,” Pelosi said. “When you get it you must use it.” The story of how Pelosi did that in her second speakership has yet to be written. We should hope that there was an insider as acute as Lawrence taking notes.