Nancy Pelosi won reelection Wednesday to her post as House Democratic leader, holding off a long-shot challenge from Ohio congressman Tim Ryan. The day before, she made a revealing comment to the Huffington Post (in bold):
“This election is not going to be won at fundraisers on the coasts,” the Ohio Democrat told The Wall Street Journal last week. “It’s going to be won in union halls in the industrial Midwest and fish fries in the Midwest and the South.”
Ryan made the point again on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday: “We’ve got to have someone who cannot just go on MSNBC, but go on Fox and Fox Business and CNBC, and go into union halls and fish fries and churches all over the country and start a brush fire about what a new Democratic Party looks like.”
Pelosi mocked Ryan’s argument in an interview with The Huffington Post on Monday. “He didn’t even carry his district for Hillary Clinton,” Pelosi said with a laugh, “so I don’t know why he’s saying that.”
Pelosi’s remark is astoundingly tone-deaf, and helps to explain why so many Democrats (one-third of the caucus voted against her) wanted changes in the party’s leadership. A few loosely organized thoughts on this:
For starters, the fact that Trump carried Ryan’s district — while the congressman won reelection in that same district by 35 points — proves Ryan’s overarching point that Democrats can appeal to Trump voters if the national party modulates its message and takes it to a broader swath of the electorate. Ryan and other House Democrats who won Trump districts shouldn’t be mocked or treated as second-class citizens inside their caucus; they should be celebrated and dissected for clues as the party looks to repair its image among voters who were once a core constituency.
To that end, Pelosi’s comment implies that the Democratic party should only be led (and represented) by someone hailing from liberal America. It’s a convenient argument for her to make: Pelosi’s district, California’s 12th, covers the city of San Francisco and has a Cook PVI rating of D+34 — making it the seventh-most liberal district in the country. But this area isn’t representative of the nation on the whole, nor is it critical to winning 270 electoral votes. The presidency isn’t decided in San Francisco or Manhattan or other ultra-liberal enclaves in dark-blue states; it’s decided in places like Trumbull County, Ohio, which Obama won by 22 points in 2012 and Clinton lost by 6 points to Trump even as Ryan, who represents almost the entire county, carried it by 36 points. (For comparison’s sake, consider that Clinton won roughly 48 percent of all votes nationwide; in Trumbull County she won 45 percent, and in San Francisco County she won 86 percent).
Pelosi’s comment echoes of an ideological insularity that is at once understandable (there aren’t many swing voters in San Francisco) and incredibly destructive. The party’s unambiguous leftward lurch during the Obama era — on everything from social issues to environmentalism to regulation of industry — has already contributed to cascading losses for Democrats across the country, and, in conjunction with gerrymandering, has resulted in the purge of moderate members from the party’s congressional ranks. The “Blue Dog” coalition of moderate Democrats, which ten years ago numbered around 40, will have dwindled to single digits by the time the 115th Congress is sworn in January 3. It’s impossible to imagine Democrats taking back the House majority without winning some of the rural and/or industrial districts that Trump carried on November 8. Ryan did exactly that. Any Democrat can win in San Francisco; winning in the Rust Belt or in the Deep South is a different story. Members like Ryan — not Pelosi — are the majority-makers for Democrats.
Wednesday’s election wasn’t just about choosing someone to spearhead legislative strategy and administer the rules of the Democratic caucus in the upcoming Congress; it was about choosing a face and a voice for Democrats in the era of Trump. With Chuck Schumer, a New York liberal, leading the Senate Democrats, House Democrats had the opportunity to balance the party’s image in the eyes of the electorate. They could have chosen Ryan, a socially moderate and economically populist Midwesterner with a keen understanding of Trump’s appeal to his constituents on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Instead, they chose Pelosi.
Symbolism matters in politics. After a presidential election in which the GOP dominated Middle America, congressional Democrats will be led by a New Yorker and a Californian, while congressional Republicans will be led by a Kentuckian and a Wisconsinite. The top House Democrat represents a wealthy D+34 district on the west coast; the top House Republican represents a blue-collar R+3 district in the heartland.
Pelosi’s victory is a lost opportunity for Democrats, and her remark about Ryan suggests the party hasn’t learned the lessons of its November defeat.