House Democrats agree: It's time for the same generation

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California emerges victorious from the Democratic caucus leadership elections, Nov. 28, 2018. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

I’ve never been very kind to Nancy Pelosi, or to her contemporaries in the Democratic Party. In this space last year, after Democrats lost two special elections for Congress, I suggested, not nearly for the first time, that Pelosi and her entire generation of party leaders ought to step aside — or at least give some thought to a succession plan.

I said this not just because they were projecting a tired image, but because they seemed to be endlessly trafficking in played-out, 20th century slogans. Asked if she was a political liability, Pelosi told reporters, “I think I’m worth the trouble,” which struck me as the best summation of the ’60s generation, generally, I’d ever heard.

So when you’re trying to oust Pelosi from power in favor of younger leaders, and the whole effort seems so ill timed and poorly thought out that even I find myself sympathizing with her, then you’re probably doomed to fail spectacularly.

Which is exactly what happened this week, when a few of the party’s young stars in the House took on Pelosi and proved mainly that none of them have anything like the political acumen to replace her.

The movement to unseat the 78-year-old Pelosi has been building since the days after the 2016 election, when Ohio’s Tim Ryan ran against her for minority leader and picked up 63 votes. During this fall’s midterm campaigns, according to a tally by the Washington Post, about a third of the non-incumbent Democrats running for Congress said they wouldn’t get behind another Pelosi speakership.

After the election, Ryan and fellow centrist Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, both of whom have been eyeing long-shot presidential runs, led a cadre of Democrats in trying to derail Pelosi’s return to the speakership.

This masterfully conceived plot seems to have run into a few complications.

First off, the conspirators forgot to think of any substantive argument against Pelosi, aside from her age. Generational change is great when there’s a real disagreement among generations; getting rid of old people just because they’re old is generally regarded as cruel.

They also forgot that they needed someone to run against her — especially when their outside-the-box first choice, Ohio’s Marcia Fudge, decided she’d back Pelosi instead.

Also, they overlooked the small fact that, unlike in 2016, they actually won the elections this time — in large part because Pelosi raised a boatload of money in support of candidates who weren’t as liberal as she is and in some cases opposed her outright.

And they seem not to have considered that Democrats elected a record 89 women to the House this month, in the first midterm cycle since #MeToo became a thing. So, you know, maybe not the best moment, optically speaking, for a couple of guys to take down the first female speaker in history.

Other than that, it was a can’t-miss plan.

When it turned out that there wasn’t going to be any mass rebellion, and that Pelosi was pretty good at wrangling votes when she needed them, Moulton — who by now had emerged as the public ringleader of this thing, Ryan having quietly tiptoed away while no one was looking — offered to end the uprising in exchange for her shaking up her leadership team.

Imagine the last, starving holdouts at the Alamo issuing their final demand to the Mexicans who had the place surrounded. That’s sort of what we’re looking at here.

In the end, 32 Democrats voted against Pelosi in the caucus vote for speaker yesterday. That stings, but she’ll almost certainly win back the votes she needs to become speaker — about half of those — when the full House votes in January.

What all of this tells you, though, is that Pelosi’s job as the party’s titular leader is about to get a lot harder.

Whenever a party shrinks to a small minority of members, they tend to come from safe districts that are more ideologically pure, which makes them easier to unify. The more your caucus expands, however, the more diverse it becomes politically, and the more factions begin to emerge.

In the case of this Democratic caucus, you have at least three rough factions coalescing right now.

One group comprises Democrats from contested districts bent on projecting moderation. According to an analysis by Third Way, the lonely centrist Democratic think tank, candidates endorsed by the New Democratic caucus in the House flipped 32 seats from red to blue this cycle — an impressive showing that may act as a counterforce to runaway populism.

Then you have the more firebrand leftists from safe districts — like the party’s latest celebrity, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who want the party to pursue a more aggressive, Bernie Sanders-like assault on capitalism.

These candidates didn’t take any Republican seats, but their real power resides in the explicit threat of primaries against members they don’t deem sufficiently pure. In this way, they’re the left’s analog to the Freedom Caucus.

And finally there’s the so-called Problem-Solver Caucus, a small group of Democrats who are pressuring Pelosi for rules changes that would make it easier to introduce compromise legislation with Republicans. I’m not sure where they’re supposed to compromise, since on every issue where that matters — deficit reduction, immigration, taxes — feckless Republicans are way more scared of President Trump than they are of national ruin.

What all of these factions disagree about, really, is why they’re suddenly a majority. Were the elections a verdict for moderation and nonpartisanship? Were they a call to action for more radical policy? What message were the voters trying to send?

The answer, of course, is probably the same as in every recent wave election, at a time when most voters are perennially disgusted. They’re here now because they represented an alternative to the status quo.

They weren’t in charge of this mess. That’s all the message there is.

It sounds nice to say, as Ocasio-Cortez did last week, that the voters sent them here “to get things done.” But everyone knows you don’t get things done controlling a single chamber of Congress, with an unhinged president of the other party living up the street.

No, they’re here to keep the crazy at bay. They’re a brushback pitch aimed squarely at the chin of Donald Trump.

As for the Democrats’ governing vision, that only gets worked out one way now: in the dust storm of presidential politics that’s about to engulf the party. That’s how it always works, when it works at all — an out-of-power party finds its voice in the primaries, which this time will be more chaotic and contentious than you can imagine.

Until then, a speaker’s main job is to preserve order, beat back extremism and stay off the radar. Keep the focus on Trump, where it belongs, and where it most benefits the opposition.

Pelosi gets this. It’s what she did in the midterms, and it’s what she does best.

She’s the wrong leader for a party that needs to modernize and broaden its appeal in the longer term. But she’s exactly the right speaker for now.

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