Nancy Pelosi, 75, made history in 2007 by becoming the first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She later achieved landmark successes in partnership with President Barack Obama, pushing through economic stimulus legislation, an overhaul of Wall Street regulations and the Affordable Care Act.
But electoral defeats followed her legislative successes. Today she leads a Democratic minority in the House, sometimes bucking Obama, as in the recent battle over trade expansion in Asia.
She sat down with me recently over bowls of chocolate fudge ice cream to discuss Democratic gains on social issues, her unfinished aims on climate policy, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and her uphill fight to win back the House. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: The first political convention I covered was 1984, Walter Mondale in San Francisco. Republicans were taunting the San Francisco Democrats as out of step with the rest of the country. The country seems to have moved toward the San Francisco Democrats. Talk about that.
PELOSI: What they had intended to mean as something not complimentary, we took as a compliment. St. Francis of Assisi is a patron saint of our city. It's about a respect that we have for the dignity and worth of every person. They were referencing, in many ways, the pride we took in our LGBT community at that time, but also our leadership on the environment, on equal rights in every respect.
I always said to people, "Pay attention to what we're saying because you will be saying it sometime soon." That's really their problem. It's our pride.
HARWOOD: But here's the irony: At the time that they were invoking those themes, it appeared that Democrats couldn't lose the House. Now people look at the House and say, given the way districts are drawn and the number of competitive seats, you guys can't win the House back.
PELOSI: I don't necessarily subscribe to that. You have campaigns. And in this campaign, I'm hoping that there will be such a clear exchange of ideas rather than the politics of personal destruction that we've seen, that we don't even have to wait.
We're very excited. We have people who want to run. They believe they can win. It's a presidential year. That makes a difference. And this is the year of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. If we take that message to the public so that people who haven't been voting understand to be patriotic is to vote—people suffered and died so that you could do this—that re-engages people to have a reason to register, a reason to vote.
HARWOOD: If you look over the last few years, when you were speaker, when Speaker [John] Boehner has been doing the job, it has appeared that you have had more discipline, control, more ability to impose your will on your caucus than he has. Is that about your leadership style versus his? Or does he have a more difficult party to control?
PELOSI: Well, I don't consider myself one who imposes my will on my caucus. I consider myself a weaver. I'm at the loom, bringing all these threads together. Different geography, philosophy, gender, age, generational differences and the rest. And every one of them a source of strength to us. We want to weave a fabric that's very strong, but also very sustainable and representative.
I didn't go in and say, "This is what we're doing today." We built consensus. They wouldn't know a unified party if they saw one.
HARWOOD: The president is nearing the end of his term. He's starting to get more and more criticism from Democrats. Elizabeth Warren, who was one of the opponents of the trade deal, recently went after Mary Jo White, the president's choice to head the SEC. Do you think that is piling on, scoring political points at the president's expense? Do you agree with her?
PELOSI: No. I'm not into what her case is there. But look, we're the Democratic Party. We're not a parliamentary system. People will express themselves the way they do. That doesn't mean they're speaking for the party.
HARWOOD: There are some people on the left who think this administration has been too soft on Wall Street. They want to break up the banks. They think the administration's just been too close with the financial industry. Do you agree with that?
PELOSI: The financial industry doesn't agree with that. No, I don't. I always say to my members, "The plural of anecdote is not data." There may have been a couple people who say that, but that is not the consensus in our party.
HARWOOD: As somebody who broke a barrier yourself in becoming speaker, do you have any concern as Hillary Clinton is running that there is important residual resistance to the idea of a woman president? Or is that gone?
PELOSI: I think the American people are so far ahead of the political leadership in Washington, D.C., it's just like every other factor. It's what campaigns are about. You can't say, "I should be elected because I'm a woman," and Hillary Clinton does not.
Everybody brings their own strength. Authenticity is what matters to the American people. People aren't expected to go out there and do an imitation of Bill Clinton, or would they expect the reverse from him. She's there to be sincerely who she is, as is Martin O'Malley, as is Bernie Sanders, as is whoever else gets in the race.
I think there's an attitude in the public that this is pretty exciting. That Hillary Clinton happens to be a woman is a wonderful thing. She will be one of the most qualified people to go into the Oval Office in a long time.
HARWOOD: You mentioned Martin O'Malley. As the daughter and sister of former mayors of Baltimore, do you think the recent unrest we saw has any relation to the job that he did as the mayor of Baltimore?
PELOSI: No. I think he was a great mayor of Baltimore. But we're talking about something so much larger, in terms of opportunity in our country.
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HARWOOD: What is there that keeps you here in this job? Do you feel any pressure from younger members of your caucus, who want their turn to be the leader, to retire?
PELOSI: I don't feel any pressure from younger members of Congress. Maybe other members of Congress, but not necessarily younger members of Congress.
My flagship issue when I came here was climate. We have to make some more progress. It's a fight we have to make. The thermal management of the planet is existential. Our colleagues are in denial.
HARWOOD: When the very sad news broke about Speaker [Dennis] Hastert a couple of weeks ago, some people observed the irony that at a time when the Republican House was pursuing the impeachment of President [Bill] Clinton over a private scandal, that the then-speaker, the speaker-elect, and then the person who succeeded the speaker-elect all had private scandals of their own.
PELOSI: Isn't that something? Well, when we ran in '05-06, one of the things that we ran on was opposing President [George W.] Bush on his privatizing Social Security, and then also to call attention to the culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence in the Republican Congress. Little did we know—it was more about [lobbyist Jack] Abramoff, there were indictments every time you turned around, and subpoenas from the Justice Department. There was just a moral fiber that wasn't there.
Nobody really regarded Mr. Hastert as "the Speaker of the House." They couldn't have Tom DeLay be the speaker, so they had to find somebody innocuous, cooperative, who could be the speaker. He seemed to be a nice man and for that reason, he became the nice speaker.
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HARWOOD: It's become a characteristic of our politics for the minority party to hold up the speaker or Senate leader of the other party as a figure of ridicule. You guys did it to [former Speaker of the House Newt] Gingrich. Does it hurt you?
PELOSI: We didn't do it to Gingrich. He did it to himself.
On my case, they probably spent $100 million, at least—some of my members think $200 million—to take me down. I was effective. I passed the Affordable Care Act. We passed Wall Street reform. We passed "don't ask/don't tell" repeal, Lily Ledbetter [Fair Pay Act], so many important pieces of legislation to end discrimination in the workforce for women and in the military, LGBT community.
These people are anti-governance, they're anti-science and they're anti-Barack Obama. So they have a trifecta going of comfort level to do nothing. The only thing that bothers me about what they said about me is I'm trying to get women to run for office, and they're so talented and wonderful and have options, and they say, "Do you think I would subject myself to what they subjected you to?"