Nancy Pelosi is in an enviable position, the most powerful Democrat in Congress at a time of national ascendancy for her party, but she seems a little nervous.
Part of this is her nature. Just like her two-decade climb up the Democratic ranks, Pelosi’s two years as House speaker have been marked by a style that might best be described as justifiably paranoid. She has relied on a close and tight-lipped circle of loyalists, frozen out those who have crossed her, and made examples of those who have threatened her hegemony. It may sound ugly, but this is how you survive in the U.S. House, especially when you’ve risen higher than any woman in history.
But there’s something else going on, too: For all of her success in consolidating power within the House, one man has eluded her grasp these past few years – and he’s about to be the second-most powerful man in the White House.
That would be Rahm Emanuel, who has given up his Illinois Congressional seat to become Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Pelosi and Emanuel aren’t exactly enemies, but there’s not much trust between them and there’s plenty of reason for the speaker to be apprehensive about what he might do with his new power. After all, he’s the only Democrat in the House since she became the party’s leader to show the ability to outmaneuver Pelosi.
Emanuel arrived in the House after the 2002 midterm elections, when – after making tens of millions of dollars in an 18-month stint as an investment banker – he claimed a Chicago-based district that had been specially preserved for him during redistricting by order of Richard Daley, the Second City’s mayor. Weeks later, Pelosi’s ascent to the top of the House Democratic Caucus was made official when she defeated nominal opposition to replace the departing Dick Gephardt as minority leader. (The real race had been the year before, when a long-standing battle with Steny Hoyer had culminated in Pelosi’s election as minority whip, which put her in line to succeed Gephardt the following year.)
Pelosi was rapidly consolidating her power within the caucus, packing influential committees with her loyalists and marginalizing Hoyer and his backers. She leaned on several longtime friends and allies, many of them fellow Californians (like George Miller and Anna Eshoo) to craft strategy with her and to act as her enforcers. Also part of her inner circle was John Murtha, a socially conservative Pennsylvanian and old school wheeler-dealer who made for an unlikely Pelosi lieutenant. But Murtha had long-standing enmity for Hoyer and had teamed up with Pelosi during their leadership fight.
When key positions came open, Pelosi made sure they were filled by nonthreatening loyalists – preferably older members who lacked obvious ambition. For instance, when the No. 4 leadership spot came open in 2005, Pelosi and Murtha cracked the whip behind the scenes to line up votes for 58-year-old John Larson, a friendly but nondescript Connecticut Democrat who possessed neither the ruthless cunning nor the backlog of IOU’s to build his own power base within the leadership. He won the race, beating a Hoyer ally, New York’s Joe Crowley, and a woman who mistakenly thought she had Pelosi’s backing, Illinois’ Jan Schakowsky. Pelosi liked Schakowsky enough, but Larson was the perfect cipher.
This is the atmosphere that Emanuel, a cutthroat political strategist with an army of influential supporters and dreams of claiming the speaker’s gavel someday, stepped into when he arrived in the House in 2003. Cozying up to Pelosi would be pointless, he quickly realized; she already had her favorites and knew too much about his ambition. Plus, it wasn’t exactly his style.
If he wanted real power in the House, and if he wanted to establish a clear avenue to a leadership spot, Emanuel would have to go around Pelosi – something no one had succeeded in doing since she’d become the Democratic leader.
At first, he was shot down, denied the seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee that he sought as a freshman. It’s highly unusual for a first-termer to win a Ways and Means seat, but Emanuel, a onetime top aide to Bill Clinton who was backed behind the scenes by some of the party’s most influential national donors, was not a typical freshman. Still, Pelosi knew that giving him the slot as a freshman would anoint Emanuel as a member to watch, hastening his rise in the House. So he was told no.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Two years later, Pelosi was in the market for a new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. For the 2004 cycle, she had awarded the post – in typical Pelosi fashion – to a mild-mannered California loyalist, 63-year-old Bob Matsui. Matsui, who passed away from a rare stem cell disorder two months after the election, had been a disaster, overseeing a poorly funded campaign effort that produced a loss of two seats.
Matsui, before his death, swore off a second term. Immediately, top national Democrats began pushing Emanuel for the post, awed by his unmatched fund-raising prowess and smart and aggressive tactical sensibilities. For his part, Emanuel badly wanted the job; the power to dole out campaign cash would allow him to build his own power base within the House, and the goodwill generated by a successful stint could give him an opening to jump into the leadership. But he didn’t want to beg Pelosi for it (that might require him to make concessions to her) and, if he got the job, he didn’t want her looking over his shoulder every step of that way.
Pelosi knew what the job could mean for Emanuel, too, and was initially unwilling to offer it to him. Emanuel feigned indifference, telling reporters he had family responsibilities and might be better off without the hassle of running the DCCC. But it was a bargaining tactic. All the while, support for Emanuel, spurred on by his well-heeled allies and top party figures in Washington, grew. Hungry to reclaim the House, Democrats began clamoring for his selection. Pelosi floated the names of several other possible candidates in the press, but Democrats (correctly) saw them as much more like Matsui than Emanuel.
Finally, the pressure became too much for Pelosi, and she was forced to go to Emanuel. But now he held all the cards – and he knew it. Democrats believed he was by far the best candidate for the job and he was still pretending he didn’t really want it. So Pelosi, to mollify her members, was forced to sweeten the pot. When the deal was finally struck, Emanuel agreed to head up the DCCC, but he was also given an unusual guarantee of independence by Pelosi – and a Ways and Means seat. Pelosi had been outfoxed.
On Emanuel’s watch, the Democrats did take back the House in 2006, and he was rewarded with the No. 4 spot – caucus chairman – on the majority side. (He had actually aimed a slot higher, but was forced to back down to avoid an ugly fight with the Congressional Black Caucus, which would have bristled at any Emanuel effort to leapfrog James Clyburn.) When he left Congress this month, Emanuel was the youngest member of the Democratic leadership, by far. He had created his own formidable power base and the speaker’s gavel, while still firmly in Pelosi’s hand, wasn’t far from his reach.
This week, Pelosi may have let her apprehension about Emanuel’s new position show, with the appearance of a Politico story” that read very much like a purpose-pitch from her office. The gist of the piece: Pelosi wants the Obama White House to know that she, and only she, runs the House, and that if they want to say or do anything with any House members, they’d better go through her first.
One sentence in the story stands out. “In large part,” it reads, “Emanuel owed his rise to Pelosi, who put him in charge of the DCCC, where he helped lead the Democrats back to the House majority after 12 years out of power.”
Pelosi may wish Emanuel remembers his House years that way, but both he and she know better – and it’s making her a little uncomfortable.