Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, CNN senior political commentator, is host of the podcast “The Axe Files,” now a regularly featured show on CNN. He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.com.
A few years back, when Nancy Pelosi was on my “The Axe Files” podcast, I asked her what she had learned about politics as the daughter of Baltimore mayor and Democratic ward leader Thomas D’Alesandro. The first and only woman to serve as speaker of the House needed no time to consider her answer.
“Mostly, I learned how to count,” she said. “And that is really what it serves me in a good stead, whether it’s about my own election or my election to leadership or my passing legislation. You really have to know how to count and what is ‘yes,’ and what is ‘that would be nice.’”
In the wake of the massive Democratic win in the midterm elections, Pelosi is counting again, trying to determine if she can muster the votes to make history as the only woman to recapture the gavel. It is by no means certain they will add up.
After 15 years as the House Democratic leader, Pelosi bears the accumulated scars of relentless attacks from opposition ad makers and media outlets. They have turned the Californian into a cartoon character, a symbol of partisanship, liberal excess and Washington politics. In exit polls from the midterm elections, Pelosi’s favorability rating stood at just 31%, 14 points lower than an embattled President Trump.
So toxic was Pelosi in some districts that more than a few new members of the House ran pledging to oppose her return to the speakership, even as Democratic House members benefited from the prodigious sums of money she raised to ensure their victories.
Pelosi also is the target of restive younger members who are demanding a new generation of leadership in the House, where the top three Democrats all are nearing their 80s.
I understand the yearning for generational change and a fresh face to lead the House. I hear the concerns that Pelosi might become a foil in Trump’s reality show, an unhelpful symbol and tarnished spokesperson.
But in my two years as senior adviser to President Obama, I saw Pelosi in a different light. Not only could she count, but she could be counted on to deliver on very tough votes. Pelosi was an invaluable ally and blunt counselor to the President, promising only what she could deliver and delivering everything that she promised. She read her members brilliantly and rallied a fractious caucus through many critical battles.
There would have been no Affordable Care Act without Pelosi, whose strategic and tactical mastery revived a health-reform law many thought was dead. She helped deliver crucial votes for unpopular, but necessary, measures to save the economy from collapse and set it on the path to recovery. She shepherded important social and economic reforms through the Congress.
Cast by her foes as a far left, San Francisco liberal, she is, in fact, a canny and measured legislative leader who has deftly balanced the needs of her members with larger legislative and political goals.
Members who ran on a pledge to dump Pelosi face a difficult choice, and if all of them hold their ground and join forces with those Democrats already in the House who have called for a new leader, Pelosi will be denied.
To have a chance, Pelosi will have to make concessions: perhaps term limits for committee chairs or other steps to allow younger, talented members to advance in the House; a new leadership team that includes members who are not yet Medicare-eligible to whom she would delegate most of her TV chores; and an explicit promise of transition.
But given this challenging moment in history, Democrats should think twice about throwing over her experience – and Trump should hope they choose someone else. There is no obvious, better choice to navigate the next two years with wily Mitch McConnell in control of the Senate and an erratic, tempestuous president in the White House.
In 1940, Britain turned to Winston Churchill, a flawed, aging but steely leader, to lead it through its existential crisis. When victory was won, British voters dispatched him.
Nancy Pelosi is surely not the leader of the future. But the savvy septuagenarian is the battle-tested leader best suited for today.