Pelosi Wins But Her Caucus Shows Cracks
House Democrats re-elected Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday to lead their caucus after a two-week internal fight over the future of the party and whether they needed new leadership following bruising losses in the 2016 election.
Pelosi, who has led Democrats since 2003 and was the first female speaker of the House, faced the most significant opposition of her tenure. Her rival, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, won the support of 63 members in his long-shot challenge.
But Pelosi won 134 votes – two more than the two-thirds she predicted even before Ryan launched his bid. The California Democrat said that she was “exhilarated” by the vote.
“They have honored me with this leadership role as speaker in the past and that's exciting, but today has a special excitement for me because I think we're at a time that is well beyond politics,” Pelosi said. “It's about the character of America. And how we go forward in our caucus to put forth our values, which are what unite us as a caucus to differentiate between us and the administration that will come into Washington in January. To take that message clearly to the public is something that is of historic challenge.”
Ryan, who earned 20 more votes than former Rep. Heath Schuler when he challenged Pelosi in 2010, said he was “disappointed” by the outcome but that his push for the party to adopt a new message, and a new messenger, resonated.
“We got the message out that we wanted to get out, and that's that as Democrats we need to talk about economics. It's the issue that unites us,” the Ohio lawmaker said after his loss. “I think it was a great discussion for us and, honestly, I think the party is better off."
Despite the relative ease of Pelosi’s victory, the frustration and dissention that fueled Ryan’s bid is unlikely to dissipate quickly. Many members who publicly backed the challenger were frustrated by what they viewed as insignificant changes in the leadership structure proposed by Pelosi and vowed to keep her feet to the fire on opening up the process.
Lawmakers who supported her argued her proposals showed she understood and took to heart the views of her caucus. Pelosi, who’s served 14 years as Democratic leader, created some vice-ranking member positions on committees and some spots on the policy committee specifically reserved for younger members.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, one of the younger members who publicly backed Ryan, said he and others would continue to push for a seat at the table and more openness between rank-and-file members and leadership, including continuing an effort to make several leadership positions elected rather than appointed. And Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who backed Ryan, said pointedly that they did not view Pelosi’s victory as a loss.
“We did not lose today. Today we won. We may not have won the position, but we won a caucus,” Fudge said. “We have now a leadership that listens to what we are saying. We have now a leadership that wants to be more inclusive. … [Ryan] didn’t lose today. Today, we made a caucus more responsible to its members."
But Rep. Kurt Schrader, another Democrat who publicly backed Ryan, was bleaker in his assessment.
“I’m very worried we just signed the Democratic Party’s death certificate for the next decade and a half unless we change and adopt what Tim’s been talking about, which is really a workingman and -woman’s agenda, regardless of who you are,” Schrader told reporters. “So far, we’ve shown no inclination to do that."
Ryan ran his campaign for leader with an economic message, saying Democrats needed to pay more attention to the disenfranchised white, blue-collar workers who turned out in droves for Donald Trump.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, who’s been in Congress since just 2013 but is close with Pelosi and was nominated by her for a leadership role, said it would be “an all-hands-on-deck operation going forward.” Swalwell said he hoped leadership would reach out to those who backed Ryan, and that they would be part of decision-making going forward. As for the party’s message, which was central to Ryan’s bid, Swalwell didn’t vary far from what his Ohio colleague has pushed for.
“It’s going back to just the basics for us, which is an uplifting message, an economy that works for all of us,” he said. “Also making sure that we stand against Donald Trump’s efforts to roll back Wall Street reforms and the Affordable Care Act. We’re going to have to go to places we haven’t gone before and I think everyone is up for doing that. This is a unifying day for us.”