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‘She was Trump’s biggest problem’: Nancy Pelosi’s exit marks end of an era

Nancy Pelosi had kept Democrats guessing for months, but once she announced she was stepping down from party leadership in the House of Representatives on Thursday, she was hailed as an irreplaceable icon. On the floor of the House, where Pelosi spoke, there were hugs, cheers and the occasional tear, while tributes came pouring in from across the American political spectrum — on the left, the centre-left and even the moderate right.“A new day is dawning on the horizon,” the 82-year-old Speaker had just said. “And I look forward — always forward — to the unfolding story of our nation.”The moment had the feeling of a celebration, albeit a bittersweet one, since Pelosi was leaving on a high note and in good standing with the various factions of the Democratic party. Although Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, they did so by an exceedingly small margin, outperforming expectations of the sweeping defeats usually handed to the party that controls the White House.Pelosi has not picked a successor, but she said she was ready to hand the baton to a new cohort. Democrats already appear to be coalescing around Hakeem Jeffries, a 52-year-old lawmaker representing New York City, as their choice for party leader. “The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect,” she said. “And I am grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility.”The only daughter of Maryland congressman Thomas D’Alesandro Jr, Pelosi grew up in Baltimore’s Little Italy — and it was there that she was first exposed to the kind of bare-knuckle, ruthlessly effective politics that would become her hallmark.“She understood that you don’t get into this business, and you surely don’t get into leadership in this business, without thick skin,” said John Lawrence, her former chief of staff. “If you get obsessed with your own image and getting revenge when people say nasty things, you’re taking your eye off the ball.”It was first and foremost her ability to corral all the different factions of the Democratic party into supporting key legislation that made her a legendary figure on Capitol Hill, and ensured she lasted in party leadership for 20 years.When Barack Obama was in the White House and she was House speaker, she shepherded passage of landmark healthcare reform, the Wall Street reform bill that stemmed from the financial crisis, and cap-and-trade climate legislation — though the latter died in the Senate.Pelosi rips up the speech of US President Donald Trump after his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber in 2020 © ReutersWith Joe Biden as president and with an even thinner majority, Pelosi — who was the first woman ever to be House speaker — was able to secure the enactment of his sweeping domestic agenda, from chip subsidies and infrastructure to clean energy incentives and measures lowering the cost of prescription drugs.“She is not afraid to let people have it if they don’t get in line, but she understands each member of her caucus,” said Scott Peters, a House Democrat from California.Pelosi’s second tenure as Speaker began in the middle of Donald Trump’s presidency — and her fierce opposition to his views and approach to leading the country only reinforced her legendary status among Democrats. Pelosi ripped up Trump’s State of the Union speech as he delivered it to Congress in February 2020, presided over both of his impeachments, and set up the bipartisan congressional committee that investigated the January 6 attack on the Capitol last year.“She was unimpressed and not in fear of him at all. She was very strong against Donald Trump and I think that is what was called for,” Peters said, adding: “She was Donald Trump’s biggest problem.”Pelosi’s active political life began late. She married Paul Pelosi, a banker, at 23, moving with him first to Manhattan and then San Francisco, where she spent her time as a stay-at-home mother to their five children, all born within the span of six years.During her time as a homemaker, she dabbled in Democratic party politics, working as a party chair and fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. She ran for her congressional seat in a special election in 1987, beating out a dozen other opponents, eventually joining the Democrats’ House leadership in 2001, first as minority whip and later as minority leader — before becoming party leader in 2003 replacing Dick Gephardt.

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At the time, her elevation as Democratic leader was seen as a sign of the leftward shift of the party, but even though she is considered very liberal and progressive on everything from economic policy to human rights, some of her biggest feuds have been with the left, including lawmakers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pelosi, who has sometimes compared wrangling members of Congress to raising children, believed they were naive. “Some of you are here to make a beautiful pâté,” she told Democratic lawmakers during a closed-door meeting, according to Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power, a 2021 biography by Susan Page. “But we’re making sausage most of the time.”A devout Catholic, Pelosi does not drink alcohol and prefers to get her energy from dark chocolate rather than other forms of caffeine. One of her boldest moves this year was to travel to Taiwan over the summer in a visit that was frowned upon at the White House and escalated tensions with China. After returning, she said the purpose of the trip was “to salute this thriving democracy”.Pelosi had frequently been attacked by Republicans as an emblem of big spending, socially liberal, Democrats — and has appeared in thousands of negative ads and vitriolic social media posts over the years. Politically, those gradually lost some of their punch, but the venom against her was such that she was often personally threatened with violence. An attack on her husband Paul in late October in their San Francisco home left her shaken and may have played a role in her decision to step away from leadership.Ultimately, however, it was the fate of American democracy that had most preoccupied her in recent years — and to which she pointed several times during her farewell speech to leadership.“American Democracy is majestic — but it is fragile,” she said. “Many of us here have witnessed its fragility first-hand — tragically, in this chamber. And so, Democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm.”

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