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Nancy Pelosi's victory shows House Democrats don't think they need to change to win

House Democrats Hold Leadership Elections Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Donald Trump is president-elect, the Republican Party controls both branches of Congress, and Speaker Paul Ryan is hatching plans to shred the social safety net.

And Democrats are responding by sticking with more or less the same leadership team that helped get them here in the first place.

On Wednesday, House Democrats reelected Nancy Pelosi, who has been in charge of the caucus since 2003, as House minority leader, defeating a long-shot insurgent campaign by Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan in a 134-63 vote.

After Republicans took complete control of the federal government this November, some liberals had argued that the Democratic Party needs a major overhaul and a new slate of leadership.

But Pelosi’s victory today makes clear that a changing of the guard is not on the table. Many Democrats on the Hill don’t think they deserve blame for their party’s feeble state, and they think the Republican majority is about to embark on a path of political suicide.

All of it confirms evidence of one growing sign of the post-election fallout: Despite its losses, the Democratic Party is not headed for a wholesale reinvention, because its leaders do not appear to believe they need one.

Is the Democratic Party in a state of crisis?

Tim Ryan (not Paul) Michael Chritton/Akron Beacon Journal/TNS via Getty Images

Now, support for staying the course was far from unanimous within the Democratic caucus — today’s vote revealed that a strong faction is crying out for immediate change.

Pelosi won by a healthy margin, picking up 134 of the nearly 200 House members voting. But Ryan captured close to one-third of the caucus — far more than many expected for the little-known and relatively inexperienced Democratic member.

The leadership elections are conducted via a secret ballot, so we don’t know exactly which House members backed Ryan or Pelosi. But of the ones who have gone public, Ryan’s backers have offered a far darker picture of the state of the party and its message than Pelosi’s.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, for instance, Ryan backer and Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader predicted that the Pelosi victory would help seal them out of power.

“I’m very worried we just signed the Democratic Party’s death certificate for the next decade,” Schrader said. “We’re going to be in the minority the next 15 years.”

Schrader stressed that Democrats had been shut out of government because they didn’t have a clear economic message for voters.

“We had a pure cultural-social agenda for this election cycle coming out of the leadership level and the presidential level,” Schrader said.

Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, another Ryan backer, similarly argued in a statement that it’s “obvious that the current strategy doesn’t work” and that “millions of Americans don’t feel that our party represents them:”

This was the point Ryan himself made repeatedly when running against Pelosi. “Our kids and grandkids are going to ask us what we did when Donald Trump got elected president,” Ryan told me. “I hope that the answer is not, ‘Nothing.’ Or, ‘I thought the status quo was the direction we should have gone in.’”

Rather than any ideology or specific policy change, this was Ryan’s clearest pitch to his colleagues — that Democrats just needed to do something differently, and that it had to begin with getting rid of the person who has led their caucus since 2003, even if they like her personally. (“I love Nancy Pelosi,” Ryan repeatedly told reporters while running.)

Top Democrats don’t think leadership is to blame for the party’s predicament

But if some Democrats hold their party’s leadership and messaging accountable for losing control of government, they couldn’t produce a majority of the caucus. Indeed, many of those who also backed Pelosi for House minority leader redirected the blame from her to other factors.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell was one of the first Congress members to emerge from a closed-door meeting Wednesday after House Democrats reelected Pelosi as their leader.

“Look, I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up here,” said Swalwell, a staunch Pelosi backer, later tweeting: “She defied history. We picked up 6 seats. When in recent history has that happened when top of ticket loses? Spoiler: it hasn't.”

Faith across Democrats’ senior leadership was reflected in Wednesday’s vote. In addition to Pelosi, 76, House Democrats also reelected veteran lawmakers Steny Hoyer, 77, for the No. 2 position, and James Clyburn, 76, for the No. 3 slot.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the vote on Wednesday, Rep. Elijah Cummings again downplayed the amount of criticism Pelosi deserved for the party’s failure to control the House since 2010.

"I don't think you can lay this at the feet of our leadership," Cummings told reporters, instead citing the letter from FBI Director James Comey and the WikiLeaks dump for the party’s losses.

This echoes the comments of Pelosi, who has also held Comey to blame for what happened to Democrats in November. “[Comey] became the leading Republican political operative in the country, wittingly or unwittingly,” she said after the election. “It really just changed everything.”

There are other reasons to credibly believe the Democratic Party does not have to change overnight. Hillary Clinton really did win the national popular vote. As Pelosi backer Rep. Hank Johnson told reporters, Pelosi isn’t at fault for the existence of gerrymandering. The Senate map tilts the playing field far in favor of conservative rural states.

Looking at that evidence, Vox’s Ezra Klein recently argued, “Democrats won the most votes in the election. They should act like it.” Why would a party that’s winning the most votes depose the leaders who got it there?

Pelosi’s backers think Republicans are about to self-destruct

Contributing to Democrats’ acceptance of their current leadership is a prediction that the Republican Party will make itself very vulnerable on its own.

There’s some reason to buy this argument, too. Republicans will move to enact a very unpopular domestic policy agenda of throwing people off their health care and gutting the safety net. Donald Trump was elected as the least popular president in modern American history, and it’s hard to imagine the rigors of the job will dramatically improve his numbers.

This is the chance leading Democrats want to seize. After winning the race, Pelosi suggested she was relishing the opportunity for Democrats to define themselves against the Trump administration. “We have a responsibility, and we embrace the opportunity that is presented,” Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday. “We know how to win elections.”

In interviews on Wednesday, even those who agree that the Democratic Party could be dramatically improved also put their faith in the Republican Party committing imminent electoral suicide by trying to ram through an unpopular agenda.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio, backed Pelosi over Ryan. Kaptur said she agreed that Democrats from the Midwest needed more of a role in party leadership, but said she ultimately trusted Pelosi to do what was best for the party. “Nancy will move heaven and earth to do what she can for members,” she said.

Asked how Democrats can come back into the majority without dramatic change, Kaptur cited the political opposition.

“I think for voters in the ‘freshwater belt,’ they will see what the Republican Party stands for, and they will flock to us to protect their Medicare,” she said. “This will be the defining moment.”