What Molly Ball’s new book teaches us about leadership in Congress
Updated: Jul 9
Nancy Pelosi is a political figure of many firsts. She was the first woman elected to Congress whose father had also been a congressman; the first Speaker of the House from California; and, of course, the first woman Speaker. Pelosi’s path-breaking career may help explain why she has been the subject of more biographies than any other modern Speaker.
The most recent profile is Pelosi by the political journalist Molly Ball. It’s a breezy, easy-to-read tome that reviews the highlights of Pelosi’s life and congressional career: growing up in the political D’Alesandro family, raising children while dipping her toe into California politics, her rise to power in the House, and her historic speakership.
The book has some shortcomings. Figures and events are often described with a partisan spin, and its portrayal of House Republicans and Pelosi’s predecessors as Speaker (both Republican and Democrat) tends to be one dimensional. Ball also relies on the common journalistic habit of attributing major causal effects to single public events, like a politician’s speech, when the truth is usually more complicated.
Nonetheless, Pelosi provides an excellent overview of Pelosi’s remarkable life and political career to date. It also offers some keen insights into how she became one of the most prominent Speakers in House history, as well as how power is gained and used in Congress. These include:
* Successful leaders are made, not born. Barrels of (virtual) ink have been spilled recounting the political careers of Pelosi’s father and brother. Yet Pelosi did not become Speaker simply by inheriting the genes of a politician. She was tutored in city machine tactics by her parents (including her mother, a neglected figure in most biographies who gets some much-deserved attention in the book), then spent years honing those tactics, and learning new ones, before getting elected to Congress in 1987.
For instance, in 1974 Pelosi used her connections in the California Assembly to lobby on behalf of Leo McCarthy’s victorious run for Speaker. Two years later, she convinced California Governor Jerry Brown to campaign in the 1976 Maryland presidential primary, which he won. Later, she ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee, a campaign which she lost but, Ball writes, “was the most brutal, and educational, of her career.”
* Recruitment helps explain who becomes a leader. In addition to skill, an important reason that individuals ascend the ranks of leadership in Congress is that they are encouraged to do so by others. This was certainly the case for Pelosi. Though she has plenty of personal ambition, the book recounts how she was asked by political leaders to serve in, or run for, positions of influence, from the San Francisco Public Library Commission to the U.S. House of Representatives. Pelosi’s career might have been very different had others not recognized her political potential early on and suggested that she take advantage of it.
* Interpersonal politics matters. Pelosi is highly proficient in “interpersonal politics,” by which I mean developing valuable relationships and earning political loyalty and support from others by, for example, generously sharing credit and helping your colleagues raise campaign funds. The ultimate goal is to build coalitions--“don’t agonize, organize,” as she puts it--that have the ability to bring about political change.
Pelosi is committed to more than just building majorities for their own sake. She would have had trouble getting elected to leadership had she been less liberal, and as Ball notes throughout the book, Pelosi does have strong, deeply-held policy beliefs. However, beliefs alone do not translate into political success, especially not in Congress. Having the allegiance of other people with power--even if it is just the power to cast a ballot--is the coin the realm.
This is especially so when running for leadership posts. Ball’s account of Pelosi’s 2001 race for minority leader is not entirely accurate (she overstates the impact of gender, which had no discernible independent effect on vote choice, and exaggerates how many lawmakers lie about their voting intentions), but she rightly notes how Pelosi won in part with tireless campaigning and the help of a powerful ally, Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania. Ball also confirms the accounts of others (including a recent analysis of the race by Doug Harris and myself) that Pelosi won her election for Speaker in 2018 by relying on her long-cultivated base of support along with some adroit bargaining skills.
* Same-party presidents can be less helpful to congressional leaders than opposite-party ones. Most members of the House yearn to serve in the majority along with a same-party president, since unified party government makes lawmaking much easier. What they tend to forget is that the president--who is elected separately from Congress, serves a longer (and limited) term, and has a different set of institutional duties--frequently follows his own political imperatives.
According to Ball, Pelosi and House Democrats were often exasperated with President Obama. Though they worked together to enact major legislation during Obama’s first two years, Democrats became frustrated that the president seemed reluctant to help campaign on their behalf when they most needed help. After Democrats lost their House majority in 2010, Obama focused his attention on congressional Republicans and shut Pelosi out of key negotiations.
Indeed, sometimes congressional leaders find it more politically advantageous to serve with an opposite-party president. When Democrats entered the “deep minority” in 2017, they--just like Republicans after 2008--allowed the president’s unpopularity and the mistakes of the House GOP to help carry them into the majority two years later. By standing up to Trump during negotiations after the 2018 elections, Pelosi earned the respect of skeptical Democrats, and the image of her leaving the White House in sunglasses and a red coat turned into a popular meme. (It is no accident that that image graces the cover of Ball’s book.)
Ball’s book, in short, is well worth a read--not just for those who happen to be Pelosi fans, but for anyone interested in the art of exercising power in the U.S. Congress.