Nancy Pelosi’s legacy: a ‘powerful and polarising’ figure in US politics

‘Now we must move boldly into the future,’ the 82-year-old has announced

Nancy Pelosi in the US Capitol building
Nancy Pelosi was a ‘lightning rod for Republican anger’
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Nancy Pelosi has announced she will not seek another term in the Democratic Party’s leadership, following a historic career that saw her become the first woman to serve as speaker of the US House of Representatives.

For nearly two decades, the 82-year-old congresswoman has led the Democrats in the House, becoming one of the most powerful and polarising figures in recent political history.

She is likely to be succeeded by Republican Kevin McCarthy, who won his party’s nomination to be speaker in the new Republican-controlled House in a secret ballot on Tuesday.

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“The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus,” Pelosi told the chamber on Thursday. “Now we must move boldly into the future, grounded by the principles that have propelled us this far, and open to fresh possibilities for the future.”

The announcement came just three weeks after her husband, Paul Pelosi, was assaulted by a man who broke into the couple’s house in San Francisco and attacked him with a hammer, leaving him in need of surgery on a fractured skull.

On Thursday, Pelosi told reporters that she had been experiencing “survivor’s guilt” in the aftermath of the attack. “It made our home a crime scene,” she said, noting that her children and grandchildren were also dealing with trauma as a result of the incident, said The Washington Post.

‘Most consequential speaker’

In a statement on Thursday, President Joe Biden described Pelosi as “the most consequential speaker of the House of Representatives in our history”, while former president Barack Obama said she was “one of most accomplished legislators in American history”.

Pelosi inspired “countless women” to pursue careers in politics, said the Post in a leader column, setting a “standard for leadership for which the nation should be grateful and to which others who hold the gavel should aspire”.

When Pelosi dramatically ripped up a copy of former president Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech after he concluded his 78-minute address in February 2020, the gesture “only reinforced her legendary status among Democrats”, said the Financial Times. “She was Trump’s biggest problem,” Scott Peters, a House Democrat from California, told the paper.

‘Lightning rod for Republican anger’

During her first stint as speaker, from 2007-11, Pelosi said she never intended to win a “popularity contest” – and she was certainly never short of critics.

Over the years, she became a “lightning rod for Republican anger”, said the BBC, because “in their eyes”, she represented the “coastal elites pushing a big-spending, radical platform”.

She even took on a “kind of mythic malice”, added The Guardian’s US columnist Moira Donegan, her “very face” becoming a “shorthand for liberal extremism, a visual code that denotes secularism, taxation and frightening new pronouns”.

But the hate directed at Pelosi didn’t solely come from the right. “The American left tends to hate Pelosi, too”, said Donegan, because her two terms as speaker were “eras of strictly enforced centrism” when “the congressional agenda was kept well to the right of the base’s preferences”.

Her controversial visit to Taiwan earlier this year caused “apoplexy” and “apocalypticism” within both parties, said the Jewish US magazine Commentary. China called the visit “sneaky” and The New York Times’s Tom Friedman described it as “utterly reckless, dangerous, and irresponsible”.

Visiting Taiwan was one example of Pelosi’s history of dipping her toes into divisive geopolitical issues. In 2003, she was one of the highest-profile, most outspoken opponents of the US invasion of Iraq, calling former president George W. Bush’s policy in the region “a grotesque mistake”.

She successfully “whipped much of her party against an Iraq War resolution worked on by [Bush’s administration]”, said ABC News. The broadcaster added that Pelosi is also credited with repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”, a policy that barred openly LGBTQ members in the military.

What next for Pelosi?

Pelosi’s former chief of staff, John Lawrence, told the BBC that he expects his ex-boss to “play an important role” in mentoring newer members of Congress and “working with the White House now that Democrats [are] in the minority again”.

“There’s never really a good time to leave,” Lawrence said. “When you’re in the ascendancy, you want to accomplish a great deal, and when things are going against you, you want to fight back.”

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