Politics & Policy

Dems Have a Pelosi Problem

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
The House minority won’t ditch its embattled leader, though it should.

Barring some last-minute surge of support for Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, House Democrats appear set to once again elect Nancy Pelosi as their leader this week.

Considering the catastrophic collapse of the House Democratic caucus over the last six years, it seems fair to ask: Why? Just how much worse could they do with Ryan running the show?

Even if Pelosi isn’t single-handedly to blame for the failures that have happened on her watch, it’s hard to see how she could lead her troops back into the majority.

With Harry Reid leaving office, she’s now clearly the least gifted communicator in the ranks of the Democratic leadership. From her “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it” defense of Obamacare to her boast that the law would create 400,000 jobs “almost immediately” to her entirely avoidable spat with then–CIA director Leon Panetta, this is a woman with a penchant for stepping in it.

But poor communication skills are only part of Pelosi’s problem. She’s also grown old and very rich during her time in government, slowly becoming a populist’s paranoiac fantasy before our eyes. She literally lives on “Billionaire’s Row” in San Francisco. She was a big fan of earmarks, and has been accused of steering subsidies to donors and engaging in insider trading. And voters know it, too. She’s now such an effective stand-in for out-of-control, big-spending, out-of-touch progressivism that the National Republican Congressional Committee uses her in swing-district television ads every cycle.

Which brings us back to the question at hand: Why are House Democrats keeping Pelosi in power?

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In some ways, she is benefiting from her own incompetence; a smaller, more liberal House caucus is more amenable to her staying in place than a larger, more ideologically diverse one would be. The sizable Democratic majority that made her the first female Speaker of the House was built with Blue Dog Democrats such as Heath Shuler, Jason Altmire, and Brad Ellsworth, who periodically deviated from the party line on guns and abortion. Those moderate voices are gone now, wiped out in a succession of Republican waves, and the result is a more homogenous caucus with greater ideological affinity for Pelosi.

Then there’s the absence of a viable replacement. Though the caucus is smaller and more ideologically rigid than it once was, there are still members who think it’s time for a change at the top. But they’re not sure Ryan is the guy. Besides that pesky allegation of public intoxication, he’s got little name recognition and probably hasn’t spent enough time building relationships with other House Democrats to successfully challenge Pelosi. There are others in the caucus who have spent more time cultivating relationships with fellow members, but they’re already in Pelosi’s corner.

#related#And finally, whatever her other faults, it’s impossible to argue with Pelosi’s fundraising prowess. It’s the single biggest reason she’s risen as far as she has, in fact: From her perch in what is perhaps the country’s most Democratic district, she’s been free to raise money for colleagues, secure in the knowledge that her own seat will be safe forever. And that means there are scores of Democratic House members who feel indebted to her.

It’s easy to forget that in 2011, shortly after Democrats lost the House in the Tea Party midterms of 2010, Shuler ran against Pelosi for Minority Leader and won 43 votes behind closed doors. We may see a similar result this week, with a decent number of House Democrats expressing a need for a change but the majority of the caucus endorsing the status quo in hopes that some outside factor boosts them back into the majority.

It’s a little like that old definition of insanity: trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

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