But make no mistake: Nancy Pelosi is the most powerful woman in American politics and the most powerful House speaker since Sam Rayburn a half century ago. She is also one of the most partisan.
During her 3-1/2-year tenure as speaker, she has shepherded through major pieces of legislation – most notably the landmark and controversial health-care bill, for which she was responsible in the climactic hours more than is generally known – and done so in an era of partisan gridlock. To achieve that, she has shown uncommon skill in enforcing discipline in Democratic Party ranks at a time when members are more fractious and ideologically diverse than in decades.
Pelosi makes no pretext about working with Republicans, and they respond in kind. At once relentless and highly pragmatic, she has expanded the powers of the speaker's office into the day-to-day operations of the House campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and restricted minority rights even beyond what the Republicans did in the 12 years they last controlled the House.
She has also reined in powerful committee chairmen in her own party. More so than previous speakers, she drafts major bills in the speaker's office, rather than going through a full committee process. Members cross her at their peril.
Her increasing power and the visibility of her job have made Pelosi one of the most controversial politicians in the country – and a popular target in the looming midterm elections. She is to Republicans what Sarah Palin is to Democrats, a cartoon figure whose every feature – hair, clothes, makeup, body parts – are fair game for satire and speculation.