Pelosi Knows How To Win — But Will She Win The House Speakership Again?

Nov 27, 2018
Originally published on November 28, 2018 2:27 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In this year's midterm elections, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi was the favorite target of Republicans. One analysis found her name was invoked in attack ads that aired more than 135,000 times. Democrats won control of the House in spite of that. And now Pelosi is seeking to become speaker again, a post she held from 2006 to 2010. But she's facing resistance within her own party from moderates who feel she's becoming a liability in swing districts and from progressives who want leaders who will aggressively pursue their policy goals.

Our guest, journalist Robert Draper, says Pelosi has shown she has the political skills, policy grasp and work ethic needed to win the support of and to manage the Democratic congressional caucus. In a cover story in this week's New York Times Magazine, Draper looks at the battle among House Democrats over the speakership and considers whether Pelosi's skills are suited to the challenges of the Trump era. Draper is a writer at large for The Times Magazine and the author of several books, including "Dead Certain: The Presidency Of George W. Bush" and "Do Not Ask What We Do: Inside The House Of Representatives." He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Robert Draper, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You spent a fair amount of time with Nancy Pelosi for this piece. You know, she spent decades in politics, fought a lot of battles, been under a lot of media scrutiny. In the midterms that we just saw, I think she was the Republican's favorite target. I mean, they clearly - their messaging and polling convinced them that attacking Nancy Pelosi was a way to beat the Democrats. How did she get in this position?

ROBERT DRAPER: Well, I think it starts with the fact that she is a woman who lives in San Francisco, who is wealthy and who is a liberal. All this makes her the quintessence of California limousine liberalism. In other words, she is very, very easy to caricature. The fact that she is a woman of a certain age has caused these caricatures to be particularly unkind and with more than an aroma of sexism to them, I think. But nonetheless, it remains a fact that she is a progressive. She is wealthy, and therefore, seemingly, the very picture of the out-of-step Democratic politician.

So Republican groups and conservative organizations have taken that series of facts and run with them with the result being one cascade of attack ads after the next. They really began after the Democrats took back the House in 2006 and were particularly evident in 2010 when, I think, $65 million was spent by conservative groups over that election cycle with ads that tended to make Nancy Pelosi the evil twin of whoever was in a particular congressional district regardless of what their voting record was. And that pattern has continued throughout all the cycles. And it's become the sort of go-to Republican playbook.

In 2018, with a lot of uncertainty in the air, how are - how is the electorate's so sort of conflicted views about Donald Trump going to play out, going to manifest? The one thing that Republicans could count on, or so they believed at the time, was as long as we keep talking about Nancy Pelosi, the voters will respond with disgust towards Pelosi and elect our folks. It didn't quite turn out that way, however. At least as of this counting, there are - the Democratic Party has picked up 38 House seats.

DAVIES: Right. And going back to the four years that she spent as speaker from 2006 to 2010, apart from the partisan attacks, were there mainstream critiques of her either integrity or leadership that, you know, that had some legs?

DRAPER: Well, it's notable that Nancy Pelosi, who's been in elective office since 1987, has lived a scandal-free political life. So they don't have that on Pelosi. Substantively, however, her tenure as speaker was a very, very active, very episodic one. Those four years were one in which she attempted to run the table with progressive legislation. And some members of her own caucus were quite restive about that - in particular, the energy bill, known as the cap-and-trade bill of 2009, that a lot of the moderate blue dog Democrats did not want to see out there.

At that time, you'll recall unemployment rate was rising. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were being lost per month. And so the notion of talking about green energy when manufacturing jobs and other kinds of jobs were dwindling seemed, at best, way off message to a lot of Democrats, and at worst, deeply wrongheaded its policy. So yes, there has always been a bit of controversy about Pelosi owing to those four years as speaker when she determined that we, the Democrats, are here to do important things. And if it runs the risk of us returning to the minority, so be it.

DAVIES: So let's talk about her career. What's her background? How did she get into politics?

DRAPER: Sure. She is the daughter, the youngest child of Tom D'Alesandro, who was an amazing political character in the history of Baltimore, Md. He was a congressman during the New Deal era, and then following that, the mayor of Baltimore. But that does not fully capture the hold that he had over Baltimore politics, in particular, the Democratic Party. The D'Alesandro household in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore was regularly trafficked with Democrats passing through from Washington D.C. or Maryland. It was the go-to place.

And so Nancy D'Alesandro grew up with that essentially in her DNA. Her older brother, Tom Jr., later became mayor of Baltimore himself. And so by the time that she moved to San Francisco to marry Paul Pelosi in 1969, she was already not just a committed Democrat but one who understood machine politics, the art of getting backstage deals done, and then upon moving to San Francisco, quickly became an organizer, a fundraiser, an activist within California Democratic circles.

DAVIES: Right. She didn't run for Congress until 1987 when she was 46. Up till that point, she was, essentially, a party operative/activist/fundraiser.

DRAPER: She was two things. She was all that you've just described. She was also a stay-at-home mother who sort of engaged in politics. I would hesitate to say dabble because she really, ultimately, ran the California Democratic Party, organized the 1984 Democratic Convention and then was the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee all while raising five kids.

But, you know, this is one thing that people, I think, forget about Pelosi or, in any event, overlook when they're busy demonizing her as this ultraliberal - that in many ways, dispositionally, she is a woman of her generation, somewhat conservative, a committed Catholic. And as I observed, while she's been in the House, she looks on with a certain bemusement at younger Democratic women who raise kids while they are in office. She did the first career - a stay-at-home mother - before she pursued the second one, which was to run for Congress in 1987 in a special election.

DAVIES: So she gets into Congress. How did she deal with the sexism and gender bias of that institution?

DRAPER: Well, she - as the only daughter with several brothers, Nancy Pelosi had no illusions about what it's like to be in a male-dominated arena. It wasn't, either then or now, her proclivity to complain. Back then, sexism was really institutionalized in Congress. When Pelosi came to Washington, there were only a couple dozen women, evenly divided between the Republican and Democratic Party. In a body of 435, they were a puny minority. And those who were there were treated as dames, as broads, as pieces of meat and were not given the best committee assignments.

So Pelosi, who has an expression she's very fond of saying - no one gives you power. You have to take it from them - proceeded to do exactly that. She slowly made her way up the chain, after a couple of terms, convinced party leadership to give her a committee slot on the House Appropriations Committee and then also to establish national security bona fides on the House Intelligence Committee. And it was really after she had managed to get and excel in those committee assignments that she began to cast her eye on a leadership position in the party.

DAVIES: Right. And the way you get to be a floor leader in the party and ascend towards the leadership is, in part, by raising money for a lot of other candidates. She was really active and successful in doing that.

DRAPER: That's right. I mean, I think that it's a two- or three-part strategy. The first is to understand who's in your caucus, understand what they're about, what their needs are - secondly, once you've done that, to raise money on their behalf - and then thirdly, to show that you can be a legislative tactician, that you can be a leader, that you can establish a kind of party unity so as to accomplish certain particular legislative goals.

And Pelosi set herself to this task after, frankly, seeing her male colleagues sort of screw things up in the 2000 election. They believed that they could retake the majority if they would just pick up about five seats. Pelosi, on her own, managed to raise funds to bring four California congressional districts back into the Democratic column.

But that was not enough. They still remained in the minority by one or two. And so Pelosi decided, you know, I know how to win. Others in my party do not know how to win as well as I do. And that was really, along with her ability to raise funds for particular colleagues, the clarion call that put her in a position to run for - to be, basically, the first female whip in the history of the American Congress.

DAVIES: You asked her at one point if she was ever encouraged to advance by party leaders. She had an interesting response.

DRAPER: Yes. Her answer was, are you kidding, they didn't even invite me to a meeting. She said, in fact the only time I'd ever been in the speaker's office was when I became speaker myself. And when I decided that I was going to run for a leadership position, specifically for whip, they basically said, really? It's not your turn. Why would you do this? And when, among her replies was that it was important to have a woman at the table, they in turn - House leadership - said to her, well, why don't you make a list of the things that you women here in Congress want done, and we'll just do them for you?

And so it was that kind of dialogue that - and as Nancy Pelosi reminded me, this did not take place in the 1800s. We were talking about the year 2001. And so there was still a retrograde aspect to the Democratic Party, which sees itself as the progressive party, as recently as 17 years ago.

DAVIES: Robert Draper's story about Nancy Pelosi appears in this week's New York Times Magazine. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Robert Draper. He wrote the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine about Nancy Pelosi's career and the challenges she faces as she seeks to become speaker of the House in January.

So Nancy Pelosi becomes speaker in 2006. She had ascended to the leadership when the Democrats took control of the House. She became the speaker. And you quote David Obey, who was a veteran congressman from Wisconsin, as saying she was the best speaker among the eight he had served with. Why?

DRAPER: Well, yes. Obey was in fact the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and really knew the ins and outs of how deals get cut, how money gets appropriated, and really was so impressed with Pelosi because, more than anything else, Pelosi, as Obey described it to me, though being thought of by many as a California liberal, did not govern or legislate from the left but instead from a kind of reasonable center and tried to find, you know, a unifying position for all of those within her caucus while also keeping an eye cocked to what the White House and the Senate were capable of. And once she established a unified position would then be able to negotiate with the other side.

But though she had a keen sense of where a kind of center would be that would hold, she, at the same time, Obey said, was not just kind of an empty-headed pragmatist, that she began with a belief system, certain things that she felt that the party needed to accomplish and had always been that way. I mean, when she came to California, her first floor speech was about the AIDS crisis that was consuming San Francisco. And later, about Tiananmen Square, she was a very, very vocal opponent of the Iraq War from start to finish, and as a member of the House Intelligence Committee was privy to the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and frankly unimpressed by what she saw and conveyed that to others.

So Pelosi has a belief system beyond simply the art of getting things done. And these are the kinds of things that Obey has felt made her, again, among the eight speakers that he worked with the very best of the lot.

DAVIES: You write that when Pelosi was speaker, there was just absolutely no doubt as to who was in charge. How did she use the levers of power at her disposal to make it clear who was in charge?

DRAPER: Well, for one thing, Pelosi is a tough individual. And if you crossed Nancy Pelosi, it was understood you did so at your peril. There were people along the way who in fact did cross her and were made to pay for it. John Dingell, the once very, very powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, had gotten crosswise with her - for one thing, had not supported her when she ran for whip in 2001. Pelosi has a very long memory, and when the time was right helped ensure that Dingell was deposed and replaced by an ally of hers, Henry Waxman, as chairman of Energy and Commerce.

And there are a number of other stories like that, too. But Pelosi at the same time understood that if you're an autocratic speaker, you're not going to last very long. She had seen others learn this the hard way, such as Newt Gingrich, who augured the House takeover by the Republicans of 1994. But Gingrich was determined to do things his way. His lieutenants became disturbed by his hard-headedness and ultimately deposed him. You're only as good as the caucus that's unified behind you, and you cannot simply do that by cracking the whip and breaking fingers.

Pelosi understands that. And so a lot of what has made her effective as the leader of the Democrats is simply her willingness to sit and listen as, you know, one colleague after the next talks to her about, you know, the political pressures they face, the needs of their district, et cetera. And so Pelosi, as a result of this, has a remarkable institutional memory of all of those disparate voices within her caucus. And that she is responsive to those is really, I think, probably the most important aspect of what has made her so effective.

DAVIES: Sounds like almost a 24-hour-a-day job. I mean, there are, what - more than 200 members of her caucus?

DRAPER: Yes. Yeah. And Pelosi, she's one of these people who sleeps, like, four hours a day. She is very efficient with her time. But by efficient, I don't mean, you know, breaks up her day ruthlessly into five-minute increments. She takes the time that is necessary to achieve whatever needs to be achieved with this or that member, this or that donor. But, yeah, she doesn't stop.

And though it is frequently remarked on that she is, you know, up there in years - she's 78 years old - she wears down her staff. And she wears down anyone who really tries to travel with her. The only one who you could argue within the Democratic Party has the same pace as Pelosi is Steny Hoyer, the long-suffering second in command in the House Democratic Caucus who's now the minority whip. But he's kind of a poor second to Pelosi. And there's a big drop-off after Hoyer.

DAVIES: One of the things that David Obey and others have said is that there would be no Affordable Care Act if Nancy Pelosi weren't speaker of the House. It passed by three votes. What challenges did she have to overcome to get that done?

DRAPER: Well, she was living on borrowed time from the outset, but just because it was such a heavy lift - not for nothing, had America not seen major overhauls in our health care system for decades and decades. She was also living on borrowed time because the Senate reverted to the Republican Party in a special election in 2009. And that meant that she could not command a super majority and that there would have to be compromises made.

There were people on the left who insisted on nothing short of a single-payer system. There were people on the right who just wanted to lower health care costs. But the notion of expanding them to cover tens of millions of other people struck them as fiscally incautious. The White House - certain key White House advisers in the Obama administration didn't want to see health care come up at all. And so there were a lot of different moving parts.

And I've just described sort of the broad brush of those. I mean, underneath all those were different things relating to health care - disbursements in rural communities and the establishment of community health centers and whether or not health care would be used to pay for abortions. And so near the end of it all in February, let's say, of 2010, there were a lot of people saying to Speaker Pelosi, let's settle for, you know, a fifth of a loaf, even a tenth of a loaf. Let's just get in and get out to, you know, pass something like on pre-existing conditions and call it a day. And Pelosi said, nope. We were here to do something major. We're going to do something major.

And yet the major thing to do was not going to include the public option hybrid of managed health care and single-payer that, for a lot of progressives, was the draw to health care legislation to begin with. She had enough street cred to convince them that this was a still worthwhile thing. And she had enough street cred and enough just tenacity to convince blue dog moderates and others that they needed to do something big, not something small. And as you say, it passed in the House by a margin of three. It is widely understood in the Obama administration as well as amongst her colleagues that that legislation simply would not have been passed but for the efforts of Nancy Pelosi.

DAVIES: So that commitment to - that grasp of policy and commitment to policy detail along with mastering relationships were all needed to make that happen.

DRAPER: That's right, yes. Yeah. I mean, it's - you know, some of this is - you know, the temptation is just to say, oh, well, you know, Nancy Pelosi really knows how to count votes. And that's the secret to her success. But that's a really reductive way of saying that, in fact, Pelosi understands the substance of legislation, understands what that substance means to various constituent parts, understands the leverage that she has to commit to those constituent parts and then finally, understands the number 218 and how to get there.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Robert Draper about Draper's cover story in this week's New York Times Magazine about Nancy Pelosi. After a break, we'll hear more of the interview. And jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new biography of the late saxophonist Dexter Gordon. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with journalist Robert Draper about Nancy Pelosi, who hopes to once again become speaker of the House in January. To do that, she needs the votes of a majority of the House - 218 members. And she faces some opposition within her own party. Draper's article about Pelosi is the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine. When they left off, Draper was describing Pelosi's skill when she was a speaker from 2006 to 2010 when she managed to corral just enough votes to pass the Affordable Care Act.

DAVIES: You write that in 2010, the Democrats lost control of Congress, and she now was a leader of the minority. You said she did some of her best work in those years. In what way?

DRAPER: Well, so it's - I mean, the main thing that one does when one is in the minority is just to play defense. But she did that in a remarkable way. There was the Affordable Care Act that was under continual assault by the House Republican majority. They were chipping away at it, trying to find one means after the next, legislatively or budgetarily, to render ineffective the Affordable Care Act.

And what Pelosi would often do was put up to ensure that there were enough House Democrats - specifically, 146, which is just a little more than one-third of the overall body of 435 members in the House. And with that one-third, they could sustain a presidential veto, meaning that if the House Republicans passed something, it managed to go through the Senate and also get passed and arrived at President Obama's desk, he could veto it, and then there would still be enough Democrats there to sustain that veto.

Now, that may sound easy, but it's not because a lot of the Democrats would - in more moderate or conservative districts, would say, look, Madam Leader, I can't be continually voting against these pieces of Republican legislation; I'm going to get killed in my district. And so she would release some of these people now and again saying, OK, you know, I can get this person over here to vote against it while you vote for it. And so there would be this continual balancing act.

So that's one thing, but the other thing that Pelosi actually managed to do and did it through the Trump administration was to obtain one concession after the next in budget fights, like increase spending for community health centers, freezing the number of deportation officers, that sort of thing. And it would leave House Republicans infuriated, but she was simply a better negotiator by dint of the fact that she knew she had a unified caucus who would vote for whatever she was negotiating at. And she just simply knew the legislative substance better than her Republican counterparts did.

DAVIES: So the Democrats took control of the House in the midterm elections, and Nancy Pelosi clearly wants to be speaker again. She faces opposition within her party, but her opponents come from different perspectives. What are the main currents of opposition to electing her as speaker?

DRAPER: Sure. Well, to back into this, it should be noted that this is not the first time that Nancy Pelosi has faced opposition. It began in 2010 when Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog Democrat, ran against her for leadership. And then in 2016, from Ohio, Tim Ryan did the same. Ryan did significantly better than Shuler had but still not close enough to dethrone Pelosi. Nonetheless, it got Pelosi's attention.

And it is very clear - it has been throughout the years, owing almost entirely to the fact that the Democrats are in the minority, and being in a minority is no fun - that there would be waves of discontent growing, a sense that the leadership chain was clogged, that Pelosi herself was a liability in certain congressional districts for the reasons we enumerated before relating to her being easily vilified and caricatured as an ultraliberal from hell and also a view that - frankly, that she, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, the third in command of the Democratic Party, are too old. They're all in their late 70s, and that a party that fashions itself as the party of young progressives should perhaps have, in the leadership chain, people who reflected that demographic reality.

Now, Pelosi has responded to all of this by saying, you know, I'm plenty effective; but, you know, if you want to challenge me, bring it on. That's when - now what we're waiting to see what happens. I mean, there certainly are individuals - I would say a kind of rump faction of maybe 16, 18 - it's a little hard to tell the numbers just yet - who have been saying a combination of what I've just described, that there needs to be a change in direction, there needs to be younger leadership, there needs to be someone perhaps not as overtly progressive and someone, in any event, who's not an electoral liability.

So some of these people are progressives who are wanting to push a more forthrightly leftist agenda. But most of them, Dave, are people who are in these vulnerable districts and have seen what a heavy lift it is to get re-elected when they are continually being demagogued as the evil spawn of Nancy Pelosi and are saying that, you know, someone else can do at least as effective a job and not be an electoral liability the way Pelosi is.

DAVIES: Yeah, I'm wondering how she responded to Democratic candidates, some of whom won, by publicly committing not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker again.

DRAPER: Well, she responded, in the main, the way she always has - by ignoring it. Because Pelosi is a realist, she recognizes that it would not do the people in those districts any good to say, oh, I'm a big Nancy Pelosi fan and then lose by 15 points. She has often said, do what you need to do; you know, distance yourself from me; take a few swipes at me if you need to.

However, it's been one thing to do that in the past and another thing to pledge, as many of these incoming Democratic House members did on the campaign trail, that they would not vote for her as speaker. And she can afford to lose at this juncture maybe about 14, 15 or so no votes but not much more than that. And so it remains to be seen, you know, as of this discussion, whether she has the - she certainly has the requisite numbers to achieve a majority and then move on to the floor of the House.

But when in January a vote comes to the floor of the House and whoever is speaker needs to win 218 votes, it's not clear just yet that she's got those 218. Now, we've seen in the last couple of weeks her pick off one dissident after the next, sometimes with - by promising, as in the case of Brian Higgins of Buffalo, N.Y., that she would achieve certain legislative priorities that he had in mind.

Sometimes, as in the case of Marcia Fudge, a subcommittee chairmanship would suffice. The progressive caucus move in alignment with Pelosi, or at least members like Pramila Jayapal did, again, when Pelosi promised to give more consideration to important committees to members of the progressive caucus. So Pelosi has kind of put on, in the last couple of weeks, a master class in how you bend people to your will by listening to their will. But it is still not a done deal yet that Pelosi will have what she needs to be speaker.

DAVIES: You know, the Republicans were certainly attacking Nancy Pelosi in the midterm elections. What was Pelosi herself doing during the midterms? What was her role?

DRAPER: Pelosi, during the midterms, was raising lots of money going to any number of districts and particularly those districts where a woman was running since it was clear that Pelosi was willing to tie her fate to this enormous number - a record-breaking number of Democratic House candidates who happen to be female. And of course part of this, I think, is because she's genuinely moved by it. But part of it is also strategic, which is that, you know, after the Democrats have succeeded in electing this record-breaking number of women to the House, which now has over 100 female members for the first time in its history, are the Democrats really going to respond to all this by throwing overboard their female leader?

DAVIES: Robert Draper's story about Nancy Pelosi appears in this week's New York Times Magazine. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Robert Draper. He wrote the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine about Nancy Pelosi's career and the challenges she faces as she seeks to become speaker of the House again in January.

This week, the Democratic caucus, all the Democratic members of the House, will vote on their candidates. There's little doubt she will be their candidate for speaker because she commands a majority of the Democratic caucus. But in January, it's the whole House that votes. She needs 218. So she can't afford to lose more than, as you said, 14 or 15 of her own members.

DRAPER: That's right. And in addition to all this, we should probably make note of the fact, Dave, that no one has said they're going to run against Pelosi yet. So even the, you know, so-called never Nancy crowd, the anybody-but-Pelosi type, have yet to say, in fact, I'm willing to take her on myself. No one really wants to take on Pelosi. And these people who are coming into her office saying, look, you know, we personally think that it's time for new leadership, don't know how to answer the question, oh, yeah? Then who is that new leader?

And, now, some of that is just, you know, perhaps a measure of how formidable an opponent Pelosi is. But it's also that, if you're a Democrat, let's say, and you just got elected and you had been internalizing the notion that it's probably time for new leadership, that Nancy Pelosi, for all the good that she has done to Democrats, has been the top Democrat in the House for 16 years - that's an awfully long time - and the party would do well to move in another direction. You then ask yourself, but who would it be? Who can do all of these things? Who can stand up to Donald Trump? Who can raise the money? Who can count the numbers? Who can negotiate the substance of legislative particulars? Who exactly has done all of these things?

Now, some people have criticized Pelosi and said, well, in fact, Pelosi has seen to it that no one else can do it because she hasn't trained anybody to do it. She hasn't nurtured any talent to come in and be her successor. Pelosi's rejoinder to that is, look, Buster, no one exactly anointed me. No one taught me anything. I was locked out of these meetings. I seized this power on my own, and I did it by learning the will of the caucus, learning person by person.

And so anybody who wants to do what I want to do, you're welcome to it. But you've got a lot of legwork of your own necessarily to do because this caucus does not expect to have someone anointing a successor to me. They want to see somebody earn it. And unless and until you know who that individual is, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to replace me.

DAVIES: So the strategy of those who intend to simply deny her the majority she needs is to, what, get her to anoint a successor and...

DRAPER: Well, no. I think first and foremost, the most desired outcome for them would be for them to say, look, Leader Pelosi, you don't want a bloodbath on the House floor any more than we do. But we've got the numbers. You do not have 218. You cannot get there. And so you could save the party of lot of grief if you would do the selfless thing and then step aside, at which point then someone will come forward and we will coalesce around that individual.

That's, I think, the primary goal. If that fails then - though this has not been spoken about much - I think the next gambit would be to say to Pelosi, I'll tell you what. We will line up behind you, but only under this one proviso, and that's that you agree to be speaker for just two years. And that that two-year transitional period is one in which, you know, we are making use of all your skills in being able to stand up to Trump and playing defense, et cetera, while at the same time training a new generation of leadership to do the kinds of things that right now only Nancy Pelosi can do.

Now, Pelosi would not want to agree to this if she doesn't have to. She would be, in effect, a lame duck. But if she has no choice, and if the numbers of dissidents hold firm to deny her 218 votes then she may have to play ball. There is a third option. And a third one would be that somehow she cuts a backstage deal with a few Republicans and manages to get their votes. And some of these Nancy naysayers are quite concerned that she will do that. She did, after all, flip eight Republicans for the 2009 energy bill. So she knows how to work across the aisle and knows how to do it behind closed doors, if need be.

DAVIES: Let's just talk a little more about some of the opponents here. Like the progressives, most notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned a party regular in the Bronx and won that seat. What does the case of the progressives for more power and influence in the party?

DRAPER: Well, we should also note that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn't just beat anybody. She beat a Nancy Pelosi ally, Joe Crowley, who had been widely seen as the heir apparent to the House Democratic leadership because he had been doing all this work amongst the various caucuses and had thus become a Pelosi favorite because of his efforts. So there's something very symbolic about the fact that Ocasio-Cortez toppled a Pelosi favorite. Now, Ocasio-Cortez has spoken fairly kindly of Pelosi and certainly has pooh-poohed the never Nancy crowd by saying all of these people are to the right of Pelosi. You know, to me - I, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - would prefer someone who will advance a progressive agenda.

And so it's clear that Ocasio-Cortez and Pramila Jayapal and several other members of the progressive caucus will be holding Pelosi's feet to the fire should she prevail as speaker and make sure that she's continuing to advance progressive causes. And so there is definitely that dynamic that's going to be at play. But it's also the case that the reason that the Democrats took back the House is not because, you know, a bunch of progressives went into Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas and elsewhere and talked about single payer. No. The districts that moved into the Democratic column in those particular states are, of course, moderate to conservative districts prevailed over by moderate to conservative candidates.

And so Pelosi will have to be mindful of the fact that those people managed to win in spite of Nancy Pelosi and progressivism, not because of them, and that she is going to have to, if not appease them, at least achieve a sort of balancing act in their electoral needs along with those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because after all, if she fails to do that then they will revert to the minority yet again.

DAVIES: Right. Let's talk about how she views this rift within the party in general about what its agenda and message should be going forward. You know, I covered congressional races in Pennsylvania here. And it just seems to me a fact that the aggressively progressive, anti-Trump agenda did energize a lot of people and did bring a lot of Democrats to the polls in some districts. And it's also a fact that in western Pennsylvania, Conor Lamb is a guy who won in a purple district by being - you know, distancing himself from Pelosi and the progressive agenda. I mean, both of these points of view have some momentum. How does she deal with this? What's her approach?

DRAPER: Well, Pelosi has more experience doing this than just about any other politician on record. Conor Lamb, it should be noted, aggressively said or proactively said, I am not going to vote for Nancy Pelosi for leadership. And so he is already in the no column. But Pelosi dealt with this when she was speaker before. She had a very, very robust Blue Dog Coalition. Of course, they became very - or much less robust after the 2008 election and after the health care legislation passed. And now there are very few blue dogs left. But there are all these - you know, Problem Solvers Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition. And, you know, she's going to have to - she believes that there are certain unifying themes that bind all of these individuals together as Democrats. But the devil is in the details.

And she recognizes that just because they're Democrats doesn't mean they're always going to vote with the Democratic Party, that there may be some things that some progressive Democrats sit out because they feel like - that it's, you know, too mushy, too much in the center, that there are others that blue dogs or other moderates will vote against because it's politically unsustainable for them and their district. She's always recognizing these things.

And while, I think, the progressive coalition is going to be much, much more dynamic and aggressive now than it has been in previous terms because there is a generational difference - and these people are not as wedded to Nancy Pelosi as the ones back in, say, the, you know, the early 2000s are. That's going to be a challenge for Pelosi. But we've seen her balance these things in the past - and fairly skillfully.

DAVIES: We'll see how it unfolds. Robert Draper, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DRAPER: My pleasure.

GROSS: Robert Draper's article about Nancy Pelosi is the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new biography of the late saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.