Do the Dems Need Nancy Pelosi?

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 08:  U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R) (R-WI) speaks with House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) following an event marking the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act at the U.S. Capitol December 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. The bill, passed with strong bipartisan support, provides funding for cancer research, the fight against the epidemic of opioid abuse, mental health treatment, aids the Food and Drug Administration in expediting drug approvals and pushes for better use of technology in medicine.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee

I wanted to share a few thoughts about the House Democrats’ leadership election. First, I’m ambivalent about Nancy Pelosi becoming Speaker again. Turnovers in leadership are good. The dozens of new House Democrats converging on Capitol Hill this week visibly shows the power of generational succession. The Democrats’ current House leadership has been in place for more than 15 years, an extraordinary length of time by historical standards.

There’s a separate matter. Somewhat like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi has been so consistently vilified and caricatured by national Republicans that she has become, objectively, a highly charged figure as the face of national Democrats. We can lament that, think it’s the product of things that are vicious and unfair. I do. But that doesn’t make it not true.

At the same time, there are very few people who understand the inner workings of the House, what caucus leaders do and what she managed to get done between 2007 and 2011 who don’t think she’s a legislative leader of extraordinary ability. She also has critical support from a broad array of the parties different factions, in and out of Congress. As important as anything, Pelosi is tough, something particularly important facing Donald Trump for the next two years.

I make these points simply to put my own cards on the table. The relevant point to me is that it’s not clear what the small anti-Pelosi faction plans for day two – what happens after Pelosi gets knocked out of the leadership contest – other than a highly divisive leadership fight with no good consequences at all.

What I most want to discuss, though, is that it’s easy to get a misimpression of what’s happening right now. There’s zero question whether Pelosi can get the support to be the leader of the House Democratic caucus. But that’s not the question. Because of the peculiarities of how the House elects leaders, the Democrats need close to unanimous support for their leader for her to become Speaker. That means that between ten and twenty members can block Pelosi from becoming Speaker, even if she has overwhelming support from within her caucus.

The other part of the equation – and I think this is the key to Pelosi’s strength – is that she doesn’t just have opponents from the right of the caucus, mainly midwestern moderates. She also has a lot of opponents on the left of the caucus, members who are more ideologically to the left, more anti-establishment. Can those factions agree on a new leader? That’s hard to figure since they’d each like a leader that looks and thinks like their faction of the party.

Which brings us to yet another point. Let’s say Pelosi goes down to defeat and you have an open leadership contest which is won by Rep. X. Do the losers in that contest, the supporters of Rep. Y, support Rep. X in the floor vote? They basically have to, almost all of them, or else that person can’t become Speaker. Which is to say that they have to do what the anti-Pelosi faction now refuses to do, vote on the floor of the House for the candidate they voted against in the leadership vote. This kind of parliamentary blackmail can easily spin out of control.

The best argument for a generational change in leadership is not the absolute age of the top three caucus leaders: Pelosi (78), Hoyer (79), Clyburn (78). It’s rather that they’ve held the collective reins for so long that they’ve kept a generation of potential leaders who aren’t terribly young themselves – men and women in their 40s and 50s – from gaining the kind of experience and track record they’ll need to take over in the future. That is part of the present problem. There’s no tested person really up for the challenge.

The best outcome I can see is one in which Pelosi takes the Speakership with some kind of understanding that she will serve as Speaker only for the next Congress or some delimited period and add new members to the leadership team now.

What I see currently is a tiny number of members, none of whom appear willing – or able – to contest the leadership themselves, looking for a pliable replacement for Pelosi who will be in their debt. This is a recipe for a divisive leadership battle followed by a weak Speakership. That’s a bad outcome for the Democrats and, I would argue, the country too.

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