The dog days of August have arrived (no pun intended with respect to President Trump’s disgraceful Omarosa misogynist insult), and the topic of the week seems to be whether Nancy Pelosi should pack it in after a decade and a half as the House’s top Democrat.
As Pelosi’s chief of staff for 8 years, including the 4 years she served as Speaker I acknowledge that I am not completely objective on the subject, and for that reason, I have avoided weighing in. But I am asked the question so frequently that I have decided that I probably ought to use DOMEocracy to put it on the table. So here it is.
I have been through winning and losing with Pelosi. While I am not privy to her current thinking, I would be shocked if she were privately obsessing over the leadership election four months down the road that will involve an unknown cohort of new and returning members. “If you don’t have 218 votes,” she famously says, “we are just having a conversation.” Pelosi doubtless will turn her attention to the leadership race when the time and circumstances are suitable. Yes, she knows that close to 50 Democrats, most of them non-incumbents, have said they will not vote for her for Speaker. Right now, as she told the New York Times over the weekend, she isn’t asking for candidates to support her; her message to them is, “Just win, baby.”
It is hardly surprising that Republicans should demonize a leader who has bested them with such regularity, even while in the minority, let alone one who genuinely threatens their continued hold on power. They similarly sought to stigmatize Tip O’Neill (remember John LeBoutillier describing him as “bloated and out of control”?), Dick Gephardt, Tom Foley and Jim Wright, whom they actually brought down. It is a safe bet they wouldn’t go any lighter on the next Democratic leader however young or new or brimming with “new ideas” that person might be. I don’t blame the Republicans; they have virtually nothing to show for eight years in power except two failed speakerships, historic levels of debt, legislative bumbling and a gigantic tax cut for the top 1% (not exactly the toughest bill to pass when you have a Republican majority). When you have nothing to show for your years in power, falling back on mean-spirited character assassination is par for the GOP’s course.
But I do blame Democrats who should know better than to echo the Republican rhetoric. The sheer vacuousness of the complaints – “We need new leadership … Ryan is leaving so Democrats should have new leadership, too.” “We need new (although undefined) ideas” – highlights the superficiality of the attacks. As a survey this week indicated Pelosi, is unlikely to be the variable that turns a voter from supporting a Democrat to supporting a Republican House candidate. Most Americans probably couldn’t tell you exactly who Nancy Pelosi is or what she has done that is so reprehensible. Republican ads simply castigate her as a “liberal”; do the Democratic dissenters seriously believe their next leader will not be similarly stereotyped, even if they weren’t liberal or from San Francisco?
Let’s tease apart two of the mostly frequently heard complaints.
“Pelosi has been around too long; we need a new leaders with new ideas.” Pelosi has remained the party leader because the Caucus chooses her — in secret votes. Politicians select leaders who help them, not just by raising money, though Pelosi certainly is a prodigious fundraiser at a time when having a prodigious fundraiser around is really helpful. (This week, she announced that the Democratic Campaign Committee has raised $191 million in the current cycle, $57 million more than during the 2016 election cycle.) She doles that money out to aid candidates in each of the Caucus’ half-dozen factions, most of whom don’t trust each other but generally do trust her to hear them out and promote policies that carefully balance the views of a very diverse group of people. Who else has that talent among the prospective leaders? Who has demonstrated that essential internal management skill both as Speaker and as Leader? Who else has successfully gone toe to toe on behalf of the House with Senate leaders (of both parties)? Who else has wrung concessions out of adversarial Speakers and presidents? Who else has kept a faction-ridden caucus together to pass and defend key victories like the Affordable Care Act? Critics assert the party needs a “new leader” who will pursue “new ideas.” What new ideas? The critics get suspiciously quiet after they raise the issues of age and tenure.
Pelosi hasn’t groomed anyone to take her place. Critics who make this argument (including some who evidently resent she has not designated them) fundamentally misunderstand the leadership selection process. The top person doesn’t pick a successor like a presidential nominee picks a vice president. There is a leadership ladder; people run for whip, or leader, or caucus chair or co-chair. These are competitive contests; people win and lose. Sometimes people break into that ladder as insurgents: Pelosi herself did just that in 2002, edging aside Steny Hoyer in the race for Whip. Pelosi has said recently that she is committed to “build[ing] a bridge to a new generation of leaders,” but she sells her own record short. Pelosi has been promoting junior members to key committee positions for years, helping to ensure a new generation of senior female and minority members with the crucial seniority needed to shape legislative initiatives. She also often expanded leadership meetings to include sub-caucus representatives, policy committee co-chairs, and other promising members who had not yet won leadership positions on their own like Rahm Emanuel (DCCC) and Chris Van Hollen (DCCC, Budget Chairman). Several chose to leave before rising further in the leadership, as did other potential successors like Xavier Becerra, a former Caucus chair. Some may speculate their departures were because leadership slots were not available, but in fact, they departed because opportunities opened that were too good to pass up: the White House, the Senate.
An announcement this fall by Pelosi that she was stepping down (even if she has made such a decision) would remove her from the GOP’s cataclysmic scenario (though not from their campaign attacks), but would be incredibly damaging. A perception that she was unfairly forced out could inhibit Democratic turnout, especially among women, particularly if it is perceived (which seems plausible) that her most strident critics are white men. Moreover, such a decision would mean that the next several months would be consumed with intra-party backbiting, deal-cutting and other distracting machinations that would undermine Goal #1: win 218 seats.
And if Democrats do prevail, as seems increasingly plausible (though by no means guaranteed), consider the response among most Democratic voters to an effort to throw out a proven woman leader who just led (and largely financed) the effort to win back control of the House as the party prepares to take on the misogynist-in-chief. Throw her out despite her extraordinary achievements as Speaker (including bare knuckle negotiations with a Republican president in her first two years) and her successful corralling of a notoriously divided Democratic Caucus? Reject her and launch the Caucus into a rancorous bloodletting amongst ambitious but unproven leadership candidates whose singular trait is their lack of experience in any of the crucial responsibilities they would have to perform on January 3, 2019?
Sounds like the GOP playbook to me.
John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published by John’s blog, Domeocracy.