The Case for Nancy Pelosi
More than 40 Democratic nominees for House seats, and another 11 Democratic incumbents, have publicly said they don’t want Rep. Nancy Pelosi to regain the speaker’s gavel if their party wins control of the chamber.
But they can’t give a good reason why.
Both the New York Times and NBC News recently cataloged the comments of Pelosi’s intra-party critics. Almost no one has a complaint about a policy position, strategic decision or style of management. “It’s time for new leadership” is the most common refrain, sometimes linked to a lament that “Washington is broken.”
Still, no one can articulate what Pelosi did to break it. Pelosi is generally regarded by both supporters and critics as an effective legislator and a steely negotiator, not a source of Beltway dysfunction.
Whatever the failings of the current 115th Congress, none of them rest on Pelosi’s shoulders. All she has done is keep her own caucus unified, putting pressure on the Republican majority to deliver on its own promises.
Yet she is not an inflexible partisan. When Republican divides made Democratic votes necessary to keep the government open and avert a debt default this year and last, Pelosi delivered them. In her first run as speaker, she engineered the last increase in the federal minimum wage America has had, part of a bipartisan deal that also secured additional funding for the Iraq War. And in 2015, when a handful of right-wing members were making noise about ousting Speaker John Boehner in a House floor vote, Boehner asked Pelosi if she would, if necessary, have her members vote “present” and deny the coup plotters a majority. She agreed, in the interest of the institution. As she explained later, “You can’t have 30 people in your caucus decide they’re going to vacate the chair.”
To a few Pelosi critics on the left, her propensity for deals is the problem. “Nancy’s a corporate centrist,” sneered the leftist populist James Thompson, running in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District. And self-described democratic socialist Rashida Tlaib, who will almost certainly be representing Michigan’s deep blue 13th Congressional District next year, derided Pelosi as a supporter of “big banks”—presumably referring to her role in rounding up votes for the bank bailout after the 2008 market crash, which many credit for helping prevent a deeper recession, or even a depression.
But most of the swing district Democratic candidates who are keeping their distance from the minority leader are nodding toward right-leaning voters. These people don’t see Pelosi as a corporate tool but as a “San Francisco liberal,” thanks to years of caricature by Republican admakers. In other words, the problem isn’t her substantive performance; it’s her superficial image.
Pelosi herself understands that if candidates deem it politically necessary to distance themselves, they should. “Let them do whatever they want,” she told the New York Times. “We have to win the election.” She’s putting her money where her mouth is. The Democratic Party’s official House campaign arm, which is chaired by a Pelosi ally, isn’t cutting off funds to her critics.
However, Pelosi also knows that rhetorical distancing during a campaign does not require actually throwing her under the proverbial bus. Keep in mind, the vote for speaker is a two-step process. First, each party holds a caucus to determine its leader, by secret ballot. Then, the full House votes for speaker – traditionally with each party nominating its own leader – in a public, recorded vote.
Therefore, a Democratic candidate can say, “I won’t be supporting Pelosi,” but only mean it for the party leadership vote. To go as far as opposing Pelosi on the House floor would risk giving the speaker’s gavel to the Republicans, even if Democrats held the majority. Most Democratic candidates opposing Pelosi haven’t been pressed hard to clarify what exactly they mean, giving them wiggle room. (An exception: Danny O’Connor, who fell short in the Ohio 12th District special election this month, was awkwardly forced to concede under persistent questioning he wouldn’t oppose Pelosi in the final speaker’s vote if she won the party leadership vote.) And the bigger the margin of a Democratic majority, the easier it will be for a master head-counter like Pelosi to let a few new members in reddish districts cast a protest vote against her, without actually giving up the gavel.
Still, the possibility exists that enough Democrats will declare they would abandon Pelosi on the floor to preclude her from the speakership and prompt the party caucus to go in a different direction. So if Democrats do win the majority, it will be gut-check time. Do they really want an inexperienced speaker in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election? The presidential primary is likely going to be a complicated affair, with probably more than 10 candidates navigating a host of ideological, generational, gender and racial divides. A Democratic leader who can’t corral his or her caucus will further exacerbate party divisions.
The counterargument—that getting rid of Pelosi provides better optics for the Democratic Party—was unwittingly undermined by one its chief advocates.
Rep. Seth Moulton is a leader in the fight to oust Pelosi, having opposed her re-election as minority leader back in 2016. In a recent podcast interview with Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, the 39-year old Massachusetts Marine veteran gave the typical line, “It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the party.” Yet he had nothing but praise for Pelosi’s performance to date: “Leader Pelosi has done extraordinary things. She’s a ‘master legislator,’ in her own words. We wouldn’t have Obamacare without her.”
Most notably, when Moulton was asked why doesn’t he run for speaker himself, he responded, “I don’t have any interest in being the speaker … because I think to be an effective speaker you have be very good at the, sort of, transactional, inside politics, and understanding favors. … [Pelosi is] great at that!”
As Moulton essentially acknowledges, transactional, inside politics is exactly how leaders make Congress rise above petty grandstanding to get things done. Being great at it also makes one more closely identified with the hated “Washington.” But it’s not like Republicans can’t find others to caricature if Pelosi is out of the picture. And swapping invaluable earned experience for untested leadership is not much of a solution. In ostensibly trying to fix Washington, you may inadvertently cause more dysfunction. (In fact, if Pelosi stepped aside, the caucus vote may well expose divisions between entrenched incumbents, red district moderates, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s socialists and a possible influx of less ideological military veterans backed by Moulton.)
Obviously, at some point the torch must be passed, and it makes sense to groom rising leaders in advance to ensure a smooth transition. But unless the person at the top is doing a bad job, what’s the rush?
In his Politico interview, after being asked about his own critics who accuse him of opportunism, Moulton observed, “l learned in the Marines … that when you stick your head up as a leader, people like to shoot you down.”
It’s true about Congress too.