The morning after Democrats lost control of the House, soon-to-be-former-Speaker Nancy Pelosi lead reporters on a slow-speed chase around the Capitol, dodging questions about her future.
It was an abrupt shift for the usually fearless California congresswoman, once queen of the press conference and scourge of the Republican minority.
Pelosi was the first female speaker of the House and by many accounts among the most effective people ever to hold the job. But after hundreds of attack ads, at a cost of millions of dollars, pillorying the 70-year-old grandmother from San Francisco, Pelosi emerged from this bruising election cycle strangely silent but seemingly resolute.
And now everyone wants to know: Will she stay or will she go?
On Wednesday afternoon, she told ABC anchor Diane Sawyer she had "no regrets" for pursuing an aggressive legislative agenda that alienated many voters. As for the future, "I'll have a conversation with my caucus, I'll have a conversation with my family, and pray over it, and decide how to go forward," she said, avoiding specifics. "But today isn't that day."
According to a source in Pelosi’s inner circle, the congresswoman believes that if she decided to run for minority leader, Steny Hoyer would keep his solemn promise not to run against her. She told Sawyer that she doesn't know what she's going to do—she's still absorbing the sting of defeat, still going over the numbers.
Steve Friess: How Harry Reid Pulled It Off
• Howard Kurtz: Obama Aloof, Even in Defeat Pelosi spent Election Night and all day Wednesday talking to the ousted Democratic representatives, consoling them, and comparing notes. In the run-up to the bruising election, she spent each day calling the more than 200 members of her caucus, and to a man and woman they had vowed they’d win.
“She knew it would be bad,” the source said. “She didn't know it would be this bad.”
Instant opinions varied in the hours after the election about what role, if any, Pelosi should have in Democratic leadership going forward. Some expect her to run for minority leader. Some expect her to step aside. Some expect her to quietly retire—to finally give up the 7 a.m. hair-and-makeup sessions and late nights on Capitol Hill—and head home to San Francisco.
But those closest to her doubt she'll be packing her bags any time soon.
“She was reelected with 80 percent in her district,” said the inner-circle source. “She is not going to pull a Sarah Palin and ditch her constituents.” Adds this source: “She always says politics is not for the faint of heart. She is not one to back away from a fight.”
“Nancy has no plan,” one of her aides said Tuesday night. The aide expects her to retire at the end of this next term, reasoning that she'll have many more opportunities more interesting than being in the House minority.
“The logic of the situation is that she should step down,” said Ron Peters, co-author of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics. “She’s accomplished what she could accomplish. She would still bring some assets, but her ability to help is now greatly diminished. She’s likely to conclude that the party needs a new face.”
“People are very, very concerned that she won’t gracefully step aside,” said a different insider. “Steny [Hoyer, the current majority leader who is thought to want to displace Pelosi and become House minority leader] is being very, very careful. He’s waiting to see what she’s going to do. Everybody’s keeping their powder dry and maintaining radio silence.”
It is almost is if Hoyer and his supporters are locked in a cage with a wounded tiger, and don’t want to do anything to provoke the beast. But more than that, “everybody is just shocked by how big the losses were.”
The question now is whether the bloodied Democratic caucus will blame her for those losses—or pin them more directly on President Obama.
Given that the much-reduced Democratic caucus is more liberal than before Tuesday, it isn’t at all clear that Hoyer would win a battle for minority leader, even if Pelosi decides to step down. “It might be that they’ll decide they need a fresh face,” the insider said.
“She was reelected with 80 percent in her district,” said the inner-circle source. “She is not going to pull a Sarah Palin and ditch her constituents.”
The member of Pelosi’s inner circle pointed out that if Hoyer were to run, "his people lost," so he wouldn't have the votes.
One insider, who has spent much of the day commiserating with moderate House Democrats who lost on Tuesday, said many of them blame Pelosi and her fellow California liberal congressman Henry Waxman for making them walk the plank on the cap- and-trade energy bill (which was killed in the Senate) and the health-care reform bill that proved unpopular.
“These people are bitter and furious,” the House insider said, noting that many, losers and narrow winners, called Michigan Rep. John Dingell on Wednesday to compare notes and discuss the future; the dean of the House, who had just narrowly avoided defeat, had become a magnet for moderate Democrats concerned that Pelosi had pushed the caucus too far to the left. “Nancy Pelosi was very partisan. She didn’t believe in doing things with Republicans. She didn’t care about building a consensus with them.”
On Wednesday, reporters staked out the speaker’s office, whose sweeping views and ornate fireplace will become part of John Boehner’s man cave in three month’s time. Now a lame duck, Pelosi made like Sharron Angle and ran from the media’s questions.
Making matters worse, before all the House races were even called, one strategist, given the comfort of anonymity, speculated that Pelosi would sneak out of the House, retiring from her seat over Christmas vacation in an effort to leave Washington as quietly as possible.
The Republican rout set Democrats in a nostalgic mood, uncorking memories of the powerful Pelosi who could whip votes with strength and grace.
Over at CNN, Clinton strategist Paul Begala laid out the case for why Pelosi belongs on a “Mount Rushmore for Speakers.”
Former Democratic Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who was thrown from office in Republican uprising of 1994, recalled how welcoming Pelosi was to the two dozen women who joined the Democratic caucus in 1992.
“As someone who knows, there is life after Congress,” Margolies-Mezvinsky said. “She is definitely going to land on her solid feet.”
The 2010 campaign didn’t treat the speaker too kindly. With three weeks to go until Election Day, Pelosi had been attacked by name in more than 400 ads, airing a total of more than 130,000 times, and costing at least $45 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which studies political advertising. Pelosi suffered howls from conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats, who struggled to prove to voters they weren’t marching to the liberal icon’s orders. Rep. Heath Shuler, the North Carolina Democrat and former Redskins quarterback, went so far as to say he would challenge Pelosi for speaker.
The gamble paid off: Shuler won.
The strategy didn’t work for everyone.
Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers bragged about voting against Pelosi 267 times while in office. Childers lost by double digits. Pelosi’s opponents used her gender as a short-hand for their attacks.
“People tried to minimize her by focusing on things like her appearance,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “They made such a fuss about her suits or her jewelry. No one seemed that concerned by [Pelosi’s Republican predecessor] Denny Hastert’s clothes.”
She was parodied as shrill, unyielding, bitchy. “The funny thing is, she is the grizzliest of all the mamas out there,” said Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry, about the role of women in the 2008 election. “I mean, that lady is tough. The spirit they’re trying to capture in those ads, and the persona they’re trying to create, and the idea of the tough lady—Pelosi is the queen of that.”
And that, by all accounts, will be her legacy whatever she chooses to do next. She stormed the House, and then she lost the House, and sooner or later, she’ll be going home.
Joe Mathews contributed to this report.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.