Commentary by Albert R. Hunt
Other than John McCain and Barack Obama, no U.S. politician is riding higher than Nancy Pelosi.
The speaker leads the most unified party in the recent history of the House of Representatives. She might add at least a dozen, and probably more, members to her 37-seat margin this November. She played an important, if subtle, role in facilitating Obama's nomination.
Pelosi is the toast of television talk shows as she peddles her new book, 'Know Your Power.' She even held her own on Jon Stewart's satirical comedy program, 'The Daily Show.'
She has achieved this success and quieted skeptics, including reservations expressed in this column a year and a half ago, with well-honed political instincts, prodigious work and genuine toughness.
She's still a target for conservatives and Republicans. Conservative talk shows use the B word to describe her, and a common Republican theme is the scary specter of a 'runaway' left-wing government under Obama and the liberal speaker from San Francisco.
The problem: Whatever her politics, she's a straight arrow who neither looks nor sounds threatening.
Recently, Republican candidate McCain pointedly praised her as 'an inspiration to millions of Americans' and vowed, if elected, to work closely with her.
She will be a dominant figure in Denver this month, chairing the Democratic National Convention. Because of her role at the event, she was officially neutral in the bitterly contested Democratic presidential run. At critical junctures, however, she helped Obama, an Illinois senator.
When House members George Miller and Anna Eshoo endorsed Obama in January, other politicians took note, because no one is closer to Pelosi than these two California lawmakers.
In mid-February, when the last hope of the Hillary Clinton campaign was to win most of the delegates from Michigan and Florida - states whose primaries were uncontested and didn't count since they violated party rules - Pelosi pronounced that it was unacceptable that these delegations be 'dispositive' of the outcome.
Clinton supporters and the senator herself resented that, privately charging that Pelosi didn't want to become the second-most-powerful woman in U.S. politics. In reality, Pelosi was guided by a feeling that Obama at the top of the ticket would be better for House members in the general elections.
Pelosi is a policy liberal, especially on the Iraq War, the environment and assisting poor people. Yet foremost, she's the daughter and sister of former mayors of Baltimore; one of her predecessors, and mentors, was the late Phillip Burton, the consummate dealmaker in Congress in the 1970s.
House Democrats have achieved a 92 percent unity rating, according to Congressional Quarterly; that's not done with the speaker imposing ideological litmus tests.
Pelosi has crafted an effective leadership organization, including the party's majority leader, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, whose candidacy for the post she opposed after the 2006 elections.
'This is an unbelievably cohesive team; there's almost no backstabbing,' says House Democratic policy director Rahm Emanuel, a man not easily given to subsidiary roles. 'I'll do anything she wants, and she knows it.'
Both carrot and stick are utilized. Pelosi reaches out to almost all her members: 'If politics is the art of inclusion, there's no one better than Nancy Pelosi,' says Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey.
She often taps freshman members or those from vulnerable districts to take the lead on popular legislative moves.
This summer, when Democrats capitulated on the controversial intelligence surveillance measure, Pelosi realized that Obama and some of her members could be caught between the party's active left wing and public opinion. She orchestrated a political deal that minimized any fallout.
Yet the 21-year House veteran has few equals when it comes to steely toughness. Last year, she convened all Democrats interested in the renewable-electricity standards legislation to solicit ideas and pet desires. Then she coolly explained she had no interest in proposals from anyone who didn't plan to vote for the final package.
When Rep. William Jefferson, an African-American from Louisiana, was indicted on charges of bribery, the influential Congressional Black Caucus and many senior members thought the matter should be solely left to the courts. The newly elected speaker, a champion of tough ethics laws, threw him off the House Ways and Means Committee.
A partisan Democrat, Pelosi will cut deals across the aisle. She worked closely with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to win quick passage of the economic-stimulus measure this year. And while she has deservedly been criticized for scuttling the Colombia trade agreement - her caucus remains divided on the issue - it would surprise few if she were to revive the measure, either as part of a deal for a second stimulus package or in the unlikely event there's a lame-duck session.
Pelosi's biggest challenge may come with success. If Democrats gain 20 House seats and the presidency, some of the pent-up demand for ambitious new initiatives will burst, as will divisions within the party.
Leon Panetta, a former congressional colleague who was also President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, gives Pelosi high marks. Yet he sees bigger challenges next year: 'When you get a larger majority of Democrats, many frustrated by eight years of gridlock, you're going to have to hold back a lot of horses that want to get out of that corral.'
Whatever the frustrations, Markey insists that most Democrats recall the agony of losing power in 1994 and don't wish to repeat earlier excesses. 'We know there is no immutable right to a majority.'
Moreover, one immutable fact has emerged over the last 19 months: Pelosi should not be underestimated.
Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News.