Rep. Nancy Pelosi will mark her 25th year in Congress in June. Her life in politics, she says, has been sweetened by such moments as the election of Barack Obama, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and her own swearing in as the first female House speaker. She has also had setbacks. In 2010, the Democrats lost the House after a bitter campaign in which Pelosi was a prime target of Republican ads. She chose not to retire, and she worked hard to raise money and recruit Democratic candidates for this fall’s election. Pelosi looked back on her career in an interview with National Journal. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Why did the Republicans make you an issue? Is it because, as with Hillary Rodham Clinton, some voters aren’t comfortable with a strong woman leader?
PELOSI First of all, we were effective at making change. What did we do but stand in the way of Wall Street, big health insurers, Big Oil, and people opposed to collective bargaining? My situation was different from Hillary in that most people did not know me. If your opponents want to mischaracterize you, they can say anything, and they had endless money, secretly amassed. But it was not just about that. It was 9.5 percent unemployment. It didn’t matter if you said to people, “It would be 15 percent if we hadn’t done what we did.” If you don’t have a job, that is all you know.
NJ What kind of chauvinism have you faced in Congress?
PELOSI At first the men thought having women in the House was nice. Then they started to get a little threatened—it wasn’t as cute. When I decided to run for leadership, they said, “Who said she could run?” And I thought, “Perfect. That is exactly right. Who said she could run? Not you.” That is how they thought not that long ago.
NJ You were speaker during the financial crisis. What did you think when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. went down on his knee and begged you to support the Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program?
PELOSI I said to him, “It is not us. You’re going to have to get the Republicans.” Republicans were supposed to get 100 votes.… They never did. It was a serious thing. We had had Lehman Brothers and AIG. So I called him. I wanted him to come the next morning to brief us. He said, “Madame Speaker, tomorrow morning will be too late.” And I thought, “Then why am I calling you? Why are you not calling me?”
They described the situation, and took us to the depths of hell. And [Fed] Chairman Bernanke—an expert on the Great Depression—said, “If we don’t act immediately, we won’t have an economy.” We were told the banks would lend, but the banks didn’t lend. We had to clean up the mess that these people had made, but it was our members tainted with that vote.
NJ Blue-collar America has been battered. Are Democrats still the party of working men and women?
PELOSI Absolutely. If not for us, the situation would be worse. Now, that doesn’t buy you anything—not even a cup of coffee. But the fact is, this is our fight. And it continues to be our fight. People are aware that the Republicans gave tax breaks to businesses that send jobs overseas. We once had start-ups and innovation; and people would invent something and make their mark and scale up; and sooner or later they had markets abroad and they would scale up abroad. Now they skip the scaling up in the U.S.
NJ Should the Democrats have been more protective of American industry?
PELOSI We should have been smarter. I have been fighting a fight for over 20 years on China trade. I never could win. Corporate America always saw the mirage of big markets in China. And they dominate the policy here. Democratic president, Republican president—it didn’t make any difference.
NJ You were caught off guard by the 60 Minutes exposé of insider trading in Congress, which suggested that you stalled a credit-card bill to protect your own investments—
PELOSI That was a tabloid attempt, by a program I think is a wonderful show. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I said, “What is your point? I am the bête noire of the credit-card people.” I found out later they were talking about a bill that passed the House committee the day we were passing TARP. It was the last day of the session, and it was thought that the better way we would get this is when we pushed on the Wall Street-reform bill.
NJ How are you going to take back the House?
PELOSI The main way is if we can change the job situation. It wasn’t because we did anything less in 2010—it’s that there weren’t enough jobs to encourage people to stick with us. We are in good shape now. The Republicans maintain that they are going to do so well in redistricting. It’s almost over, and they haven’t done it.
This article appears in the February 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.