More Tip O’Neill Than Jane Fonda

When soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her support for John Murtha’s bid for House Majority Leader earlier this week, the Fox News crowd went berserk.

Two of their favorite villains, it seemed, had formally locked elbows—in a doomed mission, no less—with Mr. Murtha lagging badly behind Maryland’s Steny Hoyer in a race that will be settled by the House’s newly constituted Democratic majority this Thursday.

In backing Mr. Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who has been pilloried by the right for advocating a pullout of American forces from Iraq, it seemed that Ms. Pelosi—supposedly a ditzy San Francisco liberal—was playing precisely to stereotype.

Of course, it’s a caricature.

Sure, Ms. Pelosi would much rather have the 74-year-old Mr. Murtha, the architect of her victory five years ago in a party leadership race, as her majority leader than Mr. Hoyer, the man she beat in that bitter contest. And true, some of her closest House allies—Californians like George Miller and Anna Eshoo, through whom she often telegraphs her wishes—have busied themselves counting heads for Mr. Murtha.

But the story of Ms. Pelosi’s role in the Murtha-Hoyer race isn’t that she publicly sided with Murtha. It’s what she didn’t do for him privately—namely, make phone calls, twist arms, and intimidate the impressionable freshmen with thinly veiled threats that their careers as inside players would be D.O.A. if they crossed her on this.

Instead, the soon-to-be-Speaker opened her publicly released endorsement letter by thanking Mr. Murtha “for your letter requesting my support for your candidacy for Majority Leader in the 110th Congress.” The line in which she actually grants the request is buried several paragraphs down the page.

If, as expected, Mr. Murtha does go down to defeat on Thursday, the press, and Ms. Pelosi’s political tormenters, will have all the ammunition they need to tell the world that she miscalculated and overreached—that the new House leader is in over her head and has a perilously weak hold on her flock.

No matter what they say, though, the internal fallout will be minimal for Ms. Pelosi. She spotted Mr. Murtha’s bid for the lost cause it was and shied away from investing any real capital in it. And it’s not like her personal loyalty to Mr. Murtha—or her distrust of Mr. Hoyer—is a secret among House Democrats.

The big secret here—at least outside the Capitol—is what an adept inside player the incoming Speaker actually is. Indeed, few seem to appreciate the singular position of dominance within the Democratic caucus into which she has masterfully maneuvered herself.

Part of the problem is image. Republicans have every reason to push the Pelosi-as-left-coast-sophisticate angle; it stirs up their base and loosens their donors’ wallets, and it long ago forced Ms. Pelosi to travel to Republican-leaning House districts only under cover of night.

Ms. Pelosi, of course, is a liberal, a woman inarguably to the left of Joe Six-Pack on any number of social and economic issues. But her identity isn’t that simple. Her middle initial is “D”—for D’Alesandro. As in Tom D’Alesandro Jr., the old-school Baltimore pol who was also Nancy D. Pelosi’s father.

D’Alesandro’s 12-year reign as mayor, from 1947 to 1959, coincided with the 66-year-old Ms. Pelosi’s formative years. It was in the world of East Coast ward heelers and deal-cutters, then, that the Speaker-in-waiting cut her political teeth—not at some cocktail party in Marin County.

And the lessons gleaned from that upbringing are only too evident in Ms. Pelosi’s steady 19-year ascent in the House.

Just look at how efficiently, if perhaps ruthlessly, she has squeezed the life out of Mr. Hoyer’s leadership ambition, effectively marginalizing the man who has long been seen as the chief threat to her rule.

The two squared off for the position of minority whip in 2001—a rivalry that hardly died down even after Ms. Pelosi won the contest by 23 votes. So Ms. Pelosi set about insulating herself, stacking the caucus’ Steering and Policy Committee with her staunchest loyalists and then using the resulting clout to dole out plum committee posts to her supporters.

More importantly, she’s installed her allies into other leadership posts, leaving Mr. Hoyer—who has been the minority whip since 2002, when Ms. Pelosi moved up to minority leader—as a faction of one within the Democratic leadership.

When, earlier this year, Ms. Pelosi’s candidate for caucus vice chairman bested Mr. Hoyer’s candidate—New York’s Joe Crowley—insiders took note of the margin: 116-87, virtually identical to the 118-95 tally by which Ms. Pelosi defeated Mr. Hoyer in 2001. Ms. Pelosi knows how to get the votes she needs—and how to keep them.

It’s a lesson that Republicans—and rebellious Democrats—should consider carefully when it comes time to play hardball on the House floor.

More Tip O’Neill Than Jane Fonda