This should be Nancy Pelosi’s moment of triumph. Having been ousted from the majority in the 2010 elections, Pelosi — onetime speaker of the House and current leader of the Democratic party in the lower chamber — labored for eight years in the Democratic minority, until this month, when voters swept her party back into power.
Yet now that she has come so close to grasping the brass ring once more, a backbench revolt might deny her the prize. This week 16 House Democrats signed a letter saying they will not vote for her on the floor of the House. This is a serious act of defiance. Normally, the party caucus takes a preliminary vote in private for the speakership — where different candidates have an opportunity to vie for support. But the winner of that conclave normally expects the full support of the party once the vote is taken on the House floor. These 16 Democrats are rejecting this tradition.
“Regular” Democrats who appreciate the importance and value of good party organization should be outraged by this. An essential feature of party government in the United States is the idea that the legislative caucus must vote as a bloc on important procedural matters — such as rules governing debate over a bill on the floor. And no procedural vote is more important than the one for speaker. Democratic insurgents’ threatening to buck the party caucus is about the closest thing they can do short of becoming independents.
Yet at the same time, they have a point. Pelosi is a deeply unpopular figure in American politics. A RealClearPolitics average of polls taken between August and November show her favorable rating among registered voters at just 28.5 percent, compared with an unfavorable rating of 52 percent. The latter is not far off from President Donald Trump’s unfavorable rating, which stands at 55 percent. Is this the kind of change that voters demanded two weeks ago — to have the most unpopular politician in the United States checked by the second most unpopular?
What will the Democrats end up doing? The insurgents do not yet have a candidate to replace Pelosi, and in politics you cannot beat somebody with nobody. They might just be bluffing, or they could chicken out on the floor by voting to abstain, which would give tacit support to Pelosi by reducing the threshold she needs to achieve a majority. On the other hand, they may be speaking for more members who are not yet prepared to sign the petition but who will buck the party leadership, too.
It is not my business to instruct Democrats on what they should or should not do. (A pet peeve of mine is hearing people who obviously have never voted Republican give the GOP free “advice.”) I am just rooting for a good show.
There are two broader points we can extract from this conflict, regardless of which way it goes. The first is that political opposition in the United States is easy, while governing is hard. Democrats could all agree over the last two years that Trump was bad and needed to be stopped. But how to stop him? In this case, who will stop him? What to do instead? These are the actual problems of governance, and they are divisive. Remember, there are about 325 million people in the United States of America, but only two political parties. The one in charge is bound to alienate voters eventually, which works to the benefit of the party in the wilderness. But when the out party gets invited back in, it must now likewise struggle to hold a critical mass of voters in this diverse, divided, and raucous country. We are seeing the challenges of that now, as the leader of the Democrats has a reputation that was damaged from the last time her party was in charge.
The second broad takeaway is that the Democrats are sitting atop internal divisions that could threaten their coalition. Many of these have been developing for over a decade, as the core of the party was united by the force of Barack Obama’s personality (even as it shedded swing voters in 2010, 2014, and 2018). Some of the divisions are new. An old cleavage is between the regular Democrats who have been around for ages and the voters who have come of age recently. Consider the difference between Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Pelosi is rich, white, 78 years old, and every bit a party regular — her father was even mayor of Baltimore in the 1940s and 50s. Ocasio-Cortez is Latina, not wealthy, and 29 years old; she defeated Joe Crowley, a “regular” House Democrat if there ever was one. How the party bridges such a divide is not at all clear — the older Democrats are in positions of power in government while the latter are clearly an increasing portion of the electorate.
In addition, the newfound Democratic strength in the suburbs is not guaranteed to last. The suburbs occupy a strange spot in American politics, existing between the rural and urban areas, with their own interests and dispositions. Trump’s bombastic style has thrilled rural voters who are frustrated with the status quo, but it alienated upscale suburbanites, who flocked to the Democratic banner this month. Yet suburbanites have long been at odds with city voters. Indeed, the suburbs arose because people were fleeing the cities. Republicans could not keep the suburbs and the rural voters happy together. Will Democrats fare better in their attempt to unite urban voters and suburbanites?
Questions such as these were academic so long as the Trumpified Republican party had total control of the government. Democrats were bound to win over anti-Trump voters simply because these people had nowhere else to go. But now that the Democrats have regained a modicum of power, they will have to balance these diverse and potentially competing interests. So Pelosi’s fight for the speakership is not just interesting to watch; it is an early illustration of the challenge the party faces as it transitions from opposition to governance.