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Nancy Pelosi Says She’s Running Again. There’s Something She Isn’t Saying.

Slate logo Slate 1/26/2022 Jim Newell
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol in 2019. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images © Provided by Slate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol in 2019. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The conventional wisdom has been that this will be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s last term in Congress. She made a pledge following the 2018 election limiting herself to two more terms as the Democratic leader, and said following the 2020 election that she would “abide by those limits.”

But on Tuesday night, she released a video announcing that she would seek reelection in 2022, confirming earlier reporting that she’d decided to do so.

These two things are not necessarily in conflict.

Pelosi is extremely concerned about being a lame-duck leader within the Democratic caucus, which is what she would make herself were she to announce that she was retiring at the end of her term. When asked about her retirement plans over the last year or so, she would often say something along the lines of, Do you think I’m going to make myself a lame-duck right now? Once she’s known to be on the way out, her grip over the caucus would loosen—at a time when Democrats still have much legislating they hope to do. Last year, even the perception that Pelosi would be leaving may have contributed to problems for her leadership, like when she struggled to bring progressives onboard to pass the bipartisan infrastructure law when she would’ve preferred.

Pelosi retiring would also risk signaling, at a time when reams of other senior House Democrats are rushing for the door, that Democrats view the majority as being lost. It could limit her fundraising abilities and her ability to defend vulnerable House Democrats.

What many have expected her to do, then, is to run for reelection (check), quit sometime shortly thereafter, and guide her preferred successor through an ensuing special election. If that is the track, then she’s still on it.

That maneuver may sound strange and duplicitous—in politics, of all things!—but it’s also something of a textbook move. When then-Speaker Paul Ryan did not choose this path in 2018, and instead announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, many Republicans were furious at him. It led to messy, distracting jockeying between his potential successors, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise. Maintaining order with that Republican majority was never easy, but his retirement made it harder. He couldn’t even win a stare-down with the House chaplain.

And as much as Ryan protested this interpretation of events, his announcement did telegraph that Republicans thought they were going to lose the majority. They were right, by the way.

So if you believed that this would be Pelosi’s last term as House Democratic leader, prefer that to be the case, and joined in the chorus that made “She’s 81” a trending topic on Twitter, just wait until November for the real decision to be made.

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