Nov 21, 2022

Nancy Pelosi steps down.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The future of Democratic leadership is uncertain.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Nancy Pelosi steps down from her leadership position. Plus, an update on a reader question from last week about candidate funding, and an important under the radar story on the Supreme Court.

Quick hits.

  1. Twitter CEO Elon Musk reinstated the account of former President Donald Trump, though Trump says he won't return to the platform (The reinstatement). Separately, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the appointment of special counsel Jack Smith to oversee the criminal investigations into Trump now that he has officially announced his presidential campaign. (The appointment)
  2. A shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs killed five people and injured dozens of others. Two patrons reportedly subdued the shooter, who is now in police custody. (The shooting)
  3. Democrat Adam Frisch conceded his closely-watched and unexpectedly tight House race to Rep. Lauren Boebert (R). Boebert won by just 551 votes despite running in a district where Republicans held a 9-point advantage. (The race)
  4. President Biden asked the Supreme Court to let his student loan debt relief program go into effect while legal challenges play out across the country. (The relief)
  5. Police in Idaho are still looking for a suspected killer who stabbed four Idaho University students to death, setting off a statewide manhunt. (The manhunt)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Nancy Pelosi. On Thursday, the California Democrat who made history as the first woman to be named Speaker of the House announced she was stepping down after 20 years as Democratic leader. Pelosi had served as the head of her party in Congress for two decades, and her decision ended one of the most powerful and long standing political careers in recent memory.

Pelosi, 82, made the announcement shortly after Democrats lost control of the House in this year's midterm elections, and just weeks after her husband Paul was assaulted inside their California home, an attack that required surgery for a fractured skull.

“When I first came to the [House] Floor at six years old, never would I have thought that someday I would go from homemaker to House Speaker," she said on the House floor. "For me, the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect."

She also stated her intention to remain in Congress, saying the attack on her husband convinced her to stay. President Biden praised Pelosi as the "most consequential speaker" in the nation's history.

Pelosi first entered Congress in 1987, when her top priority was helping address the AIDS epidemic. She first took the leadership post for Democrats in 2002 to succeed Richard Gephardt, who stepped aside when Republicans took control of the House. She served as speaker from 2007 to 2011 and from 2019 to the present, and was the first speaker to lose and then regain the post in over 60 years. In 2010, after Democrats lost a wave of seats in the House, Pelosi defied critics by running for leadership again and managed to pull off the victory.

Her career was defined not just by the length of her stay at the top of the party, but by her central role passing the Affordable Care Act, leading Democrats as the opposition party against Donald Trump, and her ability to usher through two of the largest bills in U.S. history in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She was also the most prolific fundraiser in the party's history, raising $310 million in this election cycle alone and, by some estimates, close to $1.3 billion during her 20 years in leadership. In 2020, she drew the ire of conservatives when she tore up then-President Trump's State of the Union address while sitting behind him.

Her announcement leaves the Democratic party with a power vacuum at the top, unsure of who will take the gavel for the first time in many years. Pelosi's longtime allies Steny Hoyer, the 83-year-old majority leader from Maryland, and James Clyburn of South Carolina, the 82-year-old No. 3 Democrat in the House, also announced they'd be stepping down from their leadership positions.

That leaves an opening for a fresh, young slate of Democratic leadership to enter the fray. New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a 52 year old lawmaker who could become the first Black leader of a major party in U.S. history, is the odds-on favorite to replace Pelosi as leader of the party. Pelosi said she has no plans to endorse a replacement.

Meanwhile, Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expected to face fierce opposition in his attempt to become the new Speaker of the House, the role Pelosi has served for the last four years.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left celebrate her as perhaps the greatest speaker in U.S. history.
  • Some argue she guided Democrats through the most challenging moments of the last 20 years.
  • Others praise her for keeping the party together, which outweighed any cons.

In Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein called her the greatest speaker of the House in history.

“Her four terms as speaker, two during unified Democratic government and two under Republican presidents and divided government, were unusually productive,” Bernstein said. “During President Barack Obama’s first term, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, she steered the Affordable Care Act into law. When her party operated with a fragile majority over the last two years, she somehow again found ways to pass liberal priorities, sometimes on party-line votes and sometimes with bipartisan support. None of this was assured... Pelosi proved to be a genius of process and people.

“If she brought something to the House floor, everyone knew she had the votes. Over and over again, she found creative ways to package the Democratic Party’s priorities in a manner that allowed something people thought was a lost cause to wind up on the president’s desk,” he added. “Most notably, she managed to save the Affordable Care Act when a filibuster-proof supermajority had evaporated in the Senate by adopting some components of the bill using a procedural maneuver known as reconciliation. More than a decade later, she drove a huge legislative agenda including a bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as the Inflation Reduction Act addressing climate change, health care and other priorities... All the procedure in the world can’t help if the votes aren’t there. But Pelosi would find a path when one wasn’t apparent.”

In The New York Times, Michelle Cottle said anyone who worked with Pelosi will remember her as a "total badass."

“By that term, I don’t mean that Ms. Pelosi is some swaggering, performative tough guy. Quite the opposite. In her two decades atop the House Democratic caucus, whether in the majority or the minority, she has been a strikingly effective leader in part because she doesn’t much give a flip about her public image,” Cottle wrote. “What matters to her is getting stuff done — be it passing legislation, thwarting the opposition’s agenda or protecting her members come election time. She is brutally pragmatic (too much so for some in her caucus) and has a shrewd sense of the political pressure points of allies and opponents alike. She doesn’t hog the credit for her clever ideas, nor does she waste time publicly rationalizing or blaming others for her bad ones. No one outworks her, and aides and allies have happily cultivated the legend of her endless energy. (Key points: Doesn’t need sleep. Runs on chocolate.)

“Ms. Pelosi has frequently been underestimated. It is one of her competitive advantages,” she said. “That whole grandmother-in-pearls thing led many to assume that she could be talked down to or outmaneuvered or intimidated. More than one Republican president and congressional leader has seen his best-laid plans shatter against her vaguely awkward, excessively bright smile. (Ms. Pelosi has never been natural in front of the camera.) Mr. Bush’s second-term goal of remaking Social Security never had a prayer. Even President Donald Trump was clearly in awe of her and had no idea how to deal with her treating him like a petulant man-child. He still doesn’t. The poor guy can’t even come up with an insulting nickname for her that sticks.”

In The Guardian, Moira Donegan said she was a "hate figure" for the right and left.

“To Republicans, Pelosi has long taken on a kind of mythic malice. To the Fox-watching white male, Pelosi symbolizes liberal elitism, a vague but totalizing specter of corruption, and that particular kind of liberal decadence that can be evoked by the name of the city that makes up nearly all of her longtime congressional district: San Francisco," Donegan wrote. "Which was always a bit of a stretch, because the fact of the matter is that the American left tends to hate Pelosi, too. To them, her two terms as speaker – first from 2007 to 2011, and then again from 2019 until this coming January – were eras of strictly enforced centrism. Under Pelosi’s tenure, the congressional agenda was kept well to the right of the base’s preferences, and leftist stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were needlessly sidelined.

“Neither of these understandings of Pelosi really capture the most striking aspect of her career – which has been characterized, above all, by an almost preternatural ability to discipline her caucus,” Donegan said. “Perhaps no speaker has been so successful at securing votes and cultivating the loyalties of her members; in interviews, Democratic House members speak of her with awe, like she’s something between a charismatic high school teacher and an emotionally withholding mom. This charisma is carefully cultivated: she famously tells no one her secrets, but has a long memory – both for past favors and past grievances. Some members seem to be eagerly seeking her approval. None seem willing to cross her.”

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right acknowledge Pelosi's strengths as a politician, but criticize how she has changed the country.
  • Some argue she spent too much money and criticize how she made partisanship worse.
  • Others call out how little she worked across the aisle during her time in office.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Republicans who loathe Pelosi "can still learn from her how to effectively wield power."

"At her best, Mrs. Pelosi believes in American freedom and has no illusions about U.S. adversaries. This year she visited Ukraine and Taiwan, and she didn’t back down from the latter trip despite heavy pressure from China," the board said. "At her worst, Mrs. Pelosi is a petty partisan. Recall the 2020 State of the Union, when she tore up President Trump’s speech while he was standing in front of her. She put allies like Rep. Adam Schiff in charge of the Intelligence Committee and let him make wild claims about Trump-Russia collusion when it was politically useful. She insisted on impeaching Mr. Trump twice, though both times it strengthened him with GOP partisans.

"Yet there’s no denying that Mrs. Pelosi has been an effective House leader, the most powerful Speaker in decades. Were Republicans paying attention? In last week’s elections, the GOP regained the House, but its new majority will be as small as Mrs. Pelosi’s current one. The narrow margin next year calls for a strong Speaker and Republican unity. If the GOP wants to convince the electorate to give it a real mandate in 2024, it needs to show it can govern," the board said. "This week Kevin McCarthy won a party vote to be nominated as Speaker, 188-31, but he needs 218 votes in January... Mr. McCarthy’s majority will be 222 at most. That number was enough for Mrs. Pelosi to avoid pointless brinkmanship over the past two years and pass an ambitious agenda for Mr. Biden. Mr. McCarthy and Republicans could learn from the example."

In Spectator, Daniel Flynn said Pelosi lacked the ability to make deals with Republicans.

"She carried a big stick to beat mavericks in her own caucus into submission. She never wielded the olive branch to extend to the other party. A single House Republican voted for Obamacare, which numbered one more than the Republicans who voted for the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Her refusal to consider a more palatable Build Back Better Act resulted in a Democrat-controlled Senate refusing to pass it," Flynn wrote. "One does not expect a House leader to cave to the opposing party on their legislation. But Pelosi’s iron-fisted leadership that prevented all but a few Democrats from crossing the aisle to support much of the major legislation advanced by Republican presidents generally meant no concessions to Democrats and laws more extreme than ones in which both parties took a role in crafting.

"An extreme woman influenced our politics to move further to the poles. While whipping a caucus into uniformity speaks to talents as a disciplinarian, the almost complete absence in her record of persuading and cajoling the other side to support the bills that Democrats championed indicates a glaring failure in the one skill typically associated with great legislators," he added. "Her two immediate predecessors as Democratic House leaders, Dick Gephardt and Tom Foley, both lived in districts that contained enough Republicans to make elections not foregone conclusions. Pelosi represents the ninth-bluest district in the United States (and the fourth wealthiest). If you live in a city that bans Happy Meals and tears down statues of Ulysses S. Grant, then your sense of the middle likely veers far from it."

In The New York Post, John Podhoretz said Pelosi's legacy is that she has spent a colossal amount of money.

"Her own contributions to this country on matters of policy, rather than shepherding or opposing bills in the House, have been negligible. She was impotent when it came to dealing with an anti-Semitic outbreak in her caucus in 2019, for example," he wrote. "And she descended into childishness to match her target’s behavior when she ripped up Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech as she sat behind him in 2020. But fair is fair. She has proved herself a political technician of immense skill. And if you like the game of politics, you have to enjoy someone who plays it masterfully even if she’s on a team you dislike.

"It was Pelosi, who became speaker 12 years later, who figured out how to herd the House’s cats and make the body into a weapon for progressivism. In 2009 and 2010, Pelosi forcefully subordinated the individual interests of her party’s members to the national interest of the Obama administration and prevailed upon Democrats in conservative districts to vote for ruinously expensive and statist regulations," Podhoretz said. "And when Joe Biden became president — after Trump screwed things up again for Republicans by helping Democrats win the Senate in the Georgia runoffs in 2020 — she painted her masterpiece. With an incredibly scant majority in the House, she managed to help Biden secure around $5 trillion in new spending in just 20 months’ time.

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • There is no doubt Pelosi is a historic figure who was good at her job.
  • There is also a good argument she made Congress more dysfunctional and partisan.
  • You can respect her political acumen and also call out the deeply concerning elements of her time in office.

Writing about someone as divisive as Nancy Pelosi in this newsletter is not easy. So, in the interest of fairness, I'll try to make it crystal clear both what I appreciate about her and what I think her biggest faults are.

For starters, there's no doubt she was a barrier-breaking figure. The "first Madame speaker" came to Congress directly on the heels of being a stay-at-home mother of five, a story that — even now — is vanishingly rare in our politics. But framing Pelosi in these terms is reductive and diminishing. Even if she had been a man who had taken the typical route to the top of the chamber, her career would have been remembered as one of the most significant in the history of U.S. politics.

If you talk to any Democratic politician, strategist or donor, they all say the same: She was prolific. Good at her job. A menace. Iron fisted. She kept the party in line and got what she wanted. Ushering in the Affordable Care Act is a good example (go read Obama’s memoir if you want to know how critical she was), but there are dozens of others. Like Mitch McConnell in the Senate, she is hated by her opposition precisely because she was such a shrewd and ruthless political operator. And if you talk to Republican politicians, especially off the record (which I have), they'll say the same thing about Pelosi: Smart, effective, incredible power over her chamber. They may not like her, sure, but many of them concede they admire her off the record (some say it quite loudly on the record).

One of my favorite moments during the Trump presidency was when we got a rare, real-time look at how Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) were negotiating. The press was present for a debate the four had on border security and the potential for a government shutdown, and despite the presence of Schumer and Vice President Mike Pence, it was clear the conversation was really between Pelosi and Trump. Throughout the exchanges, Trump and Pelosi went toe-to-toe in front of the cameras. Trump insisted he wouldn't keep the government open without funding for the wall, and the government did indeed shut down. But Pelosi held the caucus together, called his bluff and he ultimately signed a stopgap funding bill she whipped through the House without border wall funding.

Those were the days when Trump would say things like this about her: "She works very hard, she's worked long and hard, and I give her a great deal of credit for what she's done and what she's accomplished." More recently, Trump has called her "an animal" who is "incapable of doing deals" and said she was a "nasty, vindictive, horrible person." But back then, Pelosi was a formidable opponent to a man famous for owning the room. Like her or not, this is who she was as speaker, and how she'll be remembered by her supporters (and detractors). At this point, these things are basically indisputable about her.

She was also deeply flawed. Putting her politics aside — we could write a whole edition on the pros and cons and as you might expect, she's fought for some stuff I like and some stuff I do not — my two biggest beefs with the soon-to-be-former speaker are that she has made Congress a less deliberative and more dysfunctional body, and she and her family have unethically gotten rich off of her position of power.

On the former, she continued and accelerated the long-term trend of leadership gobbling up power from rank and file members. She's pushed forward a new kind of Congress where bills are negotiated, crafted and agreed to by leadership and then shoved down the throats of the members in their caucus, only for tweaks to be made after the fact to win votes or browbeat people into submission. This kind of legislating has taken real power not just from representatives, but from the voters who put them there, and Pelosi has helped perfect it.

This is a critical part of her legacy, and it is one that has made our Congress worse. The House is worse off today because of it, which means the Senate is negotiating and passing bills that are less representative of the country as a whole. And now a whole new generation of Democratic leadership that worships her is going to come into power trying to emulate how she did things.

As for her exorbitant wealth, it's still more smoke than fire, but there is a lot of smoke. Pelosi's wealth has grown by $140 million since she took office thanks to the trades made by her husband Paul Pelosi, many of which coincided with major congressional decisions. Their unbelievable success in the stock market has become so legendary that there are entire websites dedicated to tracking the family's trades so retail investors can shadow them, often with great success. It's almost farcical at this point, despite Pelosi denying she has ever tipped her husband off. Not surprisingly, Pelosi was extremely resistant to bipartisan efforts to ban congressional stock trading, a terrible look for the party and for her.

But this is who she is. Tough, smart, a tactical, political technician. Power-hungry, out of touch, and maybe even corrupt. She has undoubtedly left her mark on Congress and on U.S. politics. I'd bet everything I own there will one day be a Congressional building named after her and dozens of books written on her time. But if you were paying attention, her legacy is just as complicated as it is notable.

Your questions, answered.

Today, I'm doing something a little different. During our election coverage, I answered a reader question about funding in the 2022 cycle. Richard from Affton, Missouri, asked why Democrats had so much more funding. The broad stroke of my response was that they didn't — Republicans outfunded them in plenty of races.

Richard followed up, noting that my answer dealt specifically with overall spending that included outside groups and primaries, while his question was specifically about candidate fundraising — where Republicans were outspent in Senate races in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, North Carolina and New Hampshire. After clarifying, Richard asked again why Republicans were outspent across the board:

Q: During the general election, why did so many Republican candidates have such a funding disparity compared to their Democratic counterparts in the competitive states?

Tangle: I think the answer to your more specific inquiry is also straightforward. In short, many of the inexperienced candidates with the widest funding gaps (like Blake Masters in Arizona) actually failed to raise much money on their own initially, which is something that compounds over time. That led to Republican leadership, like Mitch McConnell, to make tough decisions about which races to invest money, time or resources in.

Funny enough, the Associated Press just dropped an entire piece about this and some of the infighting that has ensued. But key to the whole thing, in my view, is that the candidates themselves failed to raise enough money early on. Democratic candidates outraised Republicans nearly 2-to-1 in battleground states. My best guess is there are three main reasons for this:

  • Democratic voter enthusiasm in battleground states was high
  • Trump hogging most of the party's donations, since so many people in the base will now only donate to him
  • Weakness and inexperience of the candidates, who didn’t focus enough on fundraising and weren’t compelling enough to pull big money from voters

In Arizona, for instance, Masters was out fundraised by an 8-to-1 margin, then blamed McConnell (who spent $232 million across the Senate races) for not funding his campaign. But if you're McConnell and you see that, it’s easy to interpret the data as meaning Masters didn't have a chance. He lost pretty handily, so McConnell may have been smart not to back him.

One other reason for the disparity: When a candidate buys TV advertising space, they get the best deals on those ads. That means candidate money gets cheaper ad space than Super PAC money. So Democratic candidates who raised lots of money could buy television ads for a lower cost and then raise more money through the ads, meaning that virtuous cycle could build on itself.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

A former anti-abortion leader is alleging that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito once leaked the outcome of a decision he had drafted before it was public. Rev. Rob Schenck says he was told the outcome of the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case three weeks before it was released, and shared emails from that time with The New York Times to support his claim. The revelation has drawn new speculation about Alito's possible role in the leak of the decision to strike down Roe v. Wade to POLITICO, a story that is still being investigated by the court. The New York Times has the story.


  • 18. The number of terms Nancy Pelosi has served as a member of Congress, totaling 35 years.
  • 83.9%. The percentage of the vote she won in her last race for Congress in California's 11th District.
  • 47. Pelosi's age when she won her first seat in Congress.
  • 82. Pelosi's age today.
  • 60%. The percentage of U.S. voters who said they wanted to see Pelosi step down from her leadership post.
  • 49%. The percentage of Democrats who said she should remain House leader.

Have a nice day.

A horse in Utah has returned home after eight years of running around with wild mustangs. Shane Adams said his horse Mongo had been missing from home for eight years — a time period in which he went through a divorce, lost his home, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. But in September, he finally received some good news: His horse Mongo had returned. Adams had been riding almost his entire life but never felt a bond with any horse like the one he had with Mongo. He had alerted the Bureau of Land Management about the missing horse. And then a worker there suspected she had wrangled a domesticated horse during a gathering in Dugway Proving Ground, eventually recognizing him from Adams' notices and reaching out. Fox 9 has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.