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House Democrats’ coming leadership fight, explained

Newer members want a fresh-faced alternative to Nancy Pelosi.

Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi Holds Her Weekly News Conference Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

House Democrats have agreed to delay their election for leadership posts until after November 30, setting the stage for a challenge to longtime caucus leader Nancy Pelosi and potentially other members of the leadership team.

The decision is being presented by Pelosi and other senior Democrats as a “consensus” move, which was described to me by one staffer for a proponent of the delay as “horseshit.” Pelosi, in effect, was forced to back down after a Monday night meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members’ constituents are deeply alarmed by Donald Trump and disquieted by Pelosi’s decision to strike a conciliatory pose with the new administration.

The party’s insurgent left wing, which has been on the march since Election Day, is a proponent of a new leadership team as part of a general drive to increase its weight in Democratic Party institutions that heavily aligned behind Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries. But the initial impetus for a delayed leadership election came from a clutch of mostly younger members led by Seth Moulton (D-MA), Kathleen Rice (D-NY), and Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who all entered the House during the Republican wave year of 2014.

Pelosi is, in effect, surrounded by enemies and facing a delicate situation. But her opponents are themselves divided over what it is they are trying to accomplish — which is why they sought a delay in order to find more time to find a horse to back. Pelosi, meanwhile, now has a couple of weeks to convince a critical mass of members that whether or not she’s their first choice, she’s at least their second — a leader the whole caucus can agree with.

The multiple cases against Nancy Pelosi

The strength and weakness of Pelosi’s position is that there are a bunch of different complaints with her, some of which are contradictory while others are complementary:

  1. The party needs a new face: A Republican Party administration in Washington makes a “wave” election inspired by an anti-Trump backlash a plausible scenario for 2018. But House districts have been drawn in such a way that a wave would need to win plenty of seats that are 4 or 5 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the national average to win. Candidates running in those kind of districts would benefit from running under the banner of a leader whom Republican-leaning voters don’t already have strong preexisting negative opinions about. That means Not Nancy Pelosi, though basically anyone else on the planet would do.
  2. The party needs to moderate to win the white working class: On Twitter, the idea of a strategy oriented toward the white working class is heavily associated with the left-wing program of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. On Capitol Hill, the members of the Democratic Party who have successfully run and won elections in heavily white working-class constituencies tend to be moderates like Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Donnelly. These members note that Evan Bayh ran way ahead of Hillary Clinton in Indiana, and that Clinton ran on a policy platform that was much more left-wing than Barack Obama’s. They think there is a proven formula for winning elections that progressives have willfully blinded themselves to since 2010, and that now is the time to turn it around.
  3. The party needs to move to the left: This is the view of the Sanders wing of the party, which now regrets that Rep. Keith Ellison is running to chair the Democratic National Committee because he seems like the kind of member who could theoretically spearhead a cross-racial left-wing coalition to recommit House Democrats to progressive policies. Pelosi herself was considered a leader of the party’s left wing 15 years ago, but a decade spent in leadership growing closer to donors and vulnerable members at a time when the party as a whole has shifted left has somewhat cut her out from her base.

The basic lay of the land is that the second and third critiques of Pelosi are in considerable tension with each other. What’s more, in the existing leadership lineup it’s Pelosi herself who is supposed to be the party left’s champion. The second figure in the leadership, Steny Hoyer, is associated with the moderate faction, as is Caucus Chair Joe Crowley.

On the other hand, moderates are simply not numerous enough in the caucus as a whole to win a leadership battle. For progressives to oust Pelosi, they need a strong candidate, and it’s not clear that one is available, whereas for moderates to do it, they need to build bridges with the party’s left.

Caucus turnover is a problem for Pelosi

When Nancy Pelosi took over as House minority leader back in 2002, her appointment was universally derided by the smart set in Washington as electoral suicide for the Democratic Party. Here was a fancy-pants coastal liberal who voted against the war in Iraq, strongly backed environmental causes, and was associated with left-wing economic ideas like opposition to free trade deals to boot.

But she turned out to be a very effective minority party fundraiser. Corporate cash naturally tends to flow toward the business-friendly GOP and naturally tends to flow toward the incumbent party.

Out of power, Democrats need the largesse of ideologues, which Pelosi was able to provide. Her home political base in the very affluent Bay Area, and her association with the antiwar cause and environmentalism both proved to be key assets in this regard. Someone trusted by the left who could also reel in megadonors was exactly what Democrats needed, and under her leadership the party won landslides in 2006 and 2008. Then in Obama’s first 18 months in office Pelosi proved to be progressives’ stalwart leader, saving the Affordable Care Act at a moment when moderates — including Obama’s own chief of staff — wanted to abandon it, and pushing through comprehensive climate change legislation that later died in the Senate.

All that, however, is in the past. It’s no coincidence that the initial push to delay the leadership election came from leaders who weren’t around for the Bush-era wilderness years or the High Obamaism period of 2009-’10.

Contemporary intraparty battle lines are drawn on different ground (strong support for Obamacare, for example, no longer codes as a “left” position, and the salience of foreign policy has greatly diminished), and members who joined Congress in the past six years don’t feel they owe Pelosi anything in particular. She was the right leader for the time in which she was chosen, but that doesn’t mean she’s an indispensable leader for all time.

For now, though, her opponents’ problem is that they can’t beat something with nothing.