Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House would be a gift to Donald Trump and the Republican party. But a brutal fight to replace her might be even better for conservatives in the long run.
In the wake of the wave that swept more than 30 new Democratic politicians into House seats, the party faces a leadership crisis, as a substantial number of members appear poised to oppose Pelosi’s bid for speaker of the House. Some call them “revolutionaries” or “rebels,” but as of now, they’re a revolution without a leader. The only thing they’re sure of is their goal: Find someone new.
There’s almost no outcome to this struggle that will leave the Democratic caucus stronger heading into the new session. Allowing Pelosi to take the role can hardly be considered a win. She’s perhaps the most hated Democratic leader in politics today, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton — and Trump would love nothing more than to spend the second half of his first term governing in opposition to her House.
A failed attempt to oust her could present a bigger problem for the Left. Even if she manages to avoid being overthrown, the very existence of a substantial opposition effort signals weakness within the party. She’d be forced to govern the factions that tried to replace her, and she’d have to do it while Republicans hold the Senate and a combative Republican president sits in the Oval Office.
If Democrats manage to support a challenger who wins the speakership instead of Pelosi, it will be a vote of no confidence in the party establishment. And it will come just as Democrats intend to use their new control of the House to investigate Trump — and as a slew of candidates begins competing for the honor of trying to unseat him in 2020.
The possible coup against Pelosi is partly the result of Democratic lawmakers’ being sick of the status quo and looking for a way to rise within the party: The stranglehold of older leaders such as Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) and James Clyburn (D., Mich.) on top leadership positions is increasingly frustrating to younger members.
Perhaps more important, Democratic voters are ready for a change, and their representatives know it. A Gallup poll from earlier this month found that most Democrats and left-leaning independents (56 percent) said Pelosi should be replaced as speaker, and a CNN survey released yesterday found similar results. And Pelosi remains the most popular bogeyman for right-wing activists looking to rile up conservative donors and voters.
A number of incoming House Democrats explicitly vowed during their midterm campaigns to oppose Pelosi’s bid for the speakership, largely because she is unpopular in their districts. “I won’t vote for her under any circumstances,” said Abigail Spanberger (D., Va.), who unseated Dave Brat last week. Another freshman, Max Rose (D., N.Y.), had a similar comment: “I am not going to vote for her. No ifs, ands or buts, under any circumstances.”
But Pelosi doesn’t appear to be all that concerned about her fate. “I’m just going to say that I will be speaker,” she said on Wednesday morning, displaying the sense of entitlement that helps explain why many within her own party would like to see her go. Perhaps she hopes that if she acts as though her leadership role is inevitable, the opposition will evaporate and the speakership position will fall to her.
There’s no question that she’s the obvious establishment choice and the only name within the party that readily comes to mind for the job. Outside the House, powerful forces on the left still consider her the best person for the job; influential progressive outfits such as Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List, and the head of the AFL-CIO have already endorsed her.
Meanwhile, some of her defenders have suggested that it would be a mistake to oust a woman from control of the party immediately after a “pink wave” swept female Democratic lawmakers into the chamber. Pelosi allies have also floated the slogan “You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” less a rallying cry and more a concession about the absence of any clear alternatives.
“The main message is: ‘Anybody but her,’” Kurt Schrader (D., Ore.), one of the lawmakers vowing to oppose Pelosi, told Politico last week. But it remains an obvious problem for the opposing faction that no official challenger has yet emerged to vie against the 78-year-old Pelosi, who has been representing a congressional district in California for more than three decades and leading the Democratic caucus for half that time.
After the 2016 elections, Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for the minority-leader position, and after failing to achieve the necessary support, he voted in favor of her bid on the floor. He has said he’s not looking to oppose her this time around, but he has nonetheless emerged as one of the most outspoken opponents of her campaign for the gavel.
He’s been joined by Seth Moulton (D., Mass.) and Filemon Vela (D., Texas), the latter of whom said on CNN that he’s “100 percent confident” the party will end up with new leadership. Some reports indicate that even Democratic members who publicly support Pelosi think there are the votes to prevent her from becoming speaker.
Vela told Politico that the fight over the speakership could go all the way to the House floor rather than being settled in closed-door votes prior to recess and the New Year — a move that would weaken the Democratic caucus at a time when the party hopes to be training its attention on the president.
Depending on the outcome of several pending House races, the Democrats gained at least 31 seats in midterms, giving them a total of 226 seats. That means Pelosi can stand to lose somewhere between eight and 20 votes and still win the contest. There are currently at least ten firm “no” votes.
As for her potential challenger, it remains unclear whether a candidate might emerge from the left wing of the party — where new lawmakers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez push for radical reforms — or from the branch of the party that could win back drifting moderates, a branch represented by lawmakers such as Tim Ryan, who seem willing to address the voters alienated by their party’s hard-left turn.
It’s a similar situation to the Left’s 2016 fight over leadership of the Democratic National Committee. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., made a bid for the role, running as a middle-of-the-road candidate, but lost to establishment Democrat Tom Perez, who chose competitor and progressive congressman Keith Ellison as his co-chair.
Given the appetite on the left for progressivism rather than moderation, it seems likely that Democratic House members will fail to agree on an alternative to Pelosi, in which case, the reins would once again fall to the congresswoman from California.
But Democrats don’t need Nancy Pelosi. They need Tim Ryan, like they needed Pete Buttigieg, like they needed Joe Biden. Instead they’ll get Pelosi, like they got Tom Perez, like they got Hillary Clinton — while a large portion of their base continues to demand leaders who are even further to the left.