Politics & Policy

With Harry Reid Gone, Why Is Nancy Pelosi Hanging On?

(Mark Wilson/Getty)
The code of silence that normally governs House Democrats has cracked as they begin to voice criticism of the “San Francisco Democrat.”

Most Democrats serving in Congress have never known any party leaders other than Harry Reid in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House. Both were elected to lead their party after the 2002 election and then helped it come to power in their respective chambers in the anti-Bush wave election of 2006. But now both are 75 years old, and each is in charge of a clearly minority caucus. More and more Democrats believe the two leaders helped create that minority status.

Harry Reid has decided to call it quits and retire, with many of his colleagues breathing a non-public sigh of relief. But Nancy Pelosi doesn’t look like she is budging, and some of the criticism of her “San Francisco Democrat” style is going public. Many on Capitol Hill viewed both figures as representing a relentless aggressiveness that is out of favor with a public exhausted by Beltway squabbling. In The Washingtonian magazine, the latest annual confidential survey of congressional staffers found that aides rated Reid and Pelosi the “most partisan” of all members of Congress. Pelosi’s new effort to cooperate with House Speaker John Boehner on modest Medicare reforms is an unusual exception to her normal approach.

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Many Democrats insist they like the Pugnacious Pelosi. She keeps a tight, disciplined ship focused on liberal goals and isn’t afraid to punish dissenters. “Nancy is one of the few leaders who has the courage to tell people in her caucus no,” former congressman Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut told National Journal.

But more-practical members chafe under her rule. Two reliably liberal Massachusetts Democrats openly expressed displeasure with Pelosi this week in a joint appearance on WGBH, the Boston PBS station. Representative Mike Capuano of Cambridge said, “I think we need leadership that understands that if something that you’re doing is not working, change what you’re doing.” Asked if that meant Pelosi should go, he replied, “That, or she should change.” Representative Lynch was even more blunt, predicting that “Nancy Pelosi will not lead us back into the majority.” Asked by host Jim Braude if his answer to the question whether Pelosi “should go” was “yes,” Lynch replied, “Right.”

The two members were joined in part by freshman representative Seth Moulton of Salem, who told WBEX radio this week that for House Democrats there is “no question we really need to embrace a modern sense of governing.” He blasted the fact that Democrats automatically make the most senior member of a committee the chair, while Republicans have made a “great reform” by making that decision much more on the basis of merit.

It didn’t take long for Capuano to walk back some of his stinging comments. In a statement issued on late Wednesday, he praised Pelosi as a “fantastic public servant with many great accomplishments” and said he still believed she could win back the majority.

But the code of silence that normally governs House Democrats has nonetheless cracked. It’s a given that the media loves to cover with glee and in detail any disagreements within the fractious Republican caucuses. Many GOP members cooperate by trashing their own. But Democrats keep arguments much more inside the family, and usually it’s only former or retiring members who go on the record with complaints.

In covering Congress in 2010 in the run-up to the disastrous Democratic losses in that year’s midterm elections, I certainly found that to be the case. Some Democrats would privately grouse at dinner parties and in informal settings about a tone-deaf leadership. Retiring congressman Brian Baird, a psychologist from Washington State, was one of the few willing to be candid publicly.  

“It’s been an authoritarian, closed leadership,” he told me late in 2010. “That style plus a general groupthink mentality didn’t work when [former House GOP leader] Tom DeLay called the shots,” Baird said. “We’ve made some of the same damn mistakes, and we were supposed to be better. That’s the heartbreak.” The next week, that heartbreak became all too real as Democrats lost 63 House seats and their majority. Baird and other Democrats believed the defeat was primarily due to Obamacare, a program mindlessly supported by Speaker Pelosi, who infamously said of it that “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

Still beloved by much of her caucus, Pelosi is a prodigious fund-raiser who can swoop in at a moment’s notice to aid a member in electoral trouble. A third of all House Democrats are women, and they form a Praetorian Guard protecting Pelosi from any conceivable challenge to her rule.  

Clearly, nothing is going to move Pelosi from power other than her own decision. But an increasing number of her fellow members believe she is smothering the growth of new, younger leadership in the House. One of her key protégés, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, is retiring for an uncertain race for the U.S. Senate. Pelosi seems determined to stay on as leader of her party. But what’s good for Nancy Pelosi is increasingly viewed as something that is detrimental to the Democratic party as a whole.

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