Pelosi and her Democratic critics eye battle for speakership if they take House
With less than 50 days to go until the midterm elections, some Democrats are already looking ahead to what comes next for the party if predictions of big gains come true, intensifying an ongoing debate over whether Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., should return to the speaker’s chair or the next generation of the party should take charge.
In a letter delivered to caucus leadership Wednesday, a group of Pelosi critics proposed changing the rules that would govern the election of a new speaker of the House if Democrats take control. The proposal is expected to be discussed at the caucus’ weekly private strategy session next Wednesday, according to CBS News.
Under current House Democratic rules, the leader only needs a majority of the caucus behind them to go to the floor as the party’s candidate for speaker. These lawmakers want to require the leader to get 218 Democratic votes, a majority of the entire House, to be considered for speaker.
"It's no secret that I think our caucus needs new leadership. But more than that, I think we should have a process that fosters consensus, gives each member a voice and affords prospective leadership candidates a genuine opportunity to make their case before their colleagues. That's precisely what this proposed rule change sets out to do,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., in a statement.
The 11 Democrats who signed the letter, first obtained by The Atlantic, insist the proposed rule change is not aimed at unseating Pelosi, but enough current and prospective members have declared opposition to her that she would struggle to clear the raised leadership vote threshold.
“Instead of making the decision on the House floor, we can come out of caucus knowing who gets the vote - no matter who the Speaker will be. We choose not to be embarrassed on the floor the way the Republicans were embarrassed,” Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, told CBS News.
The rule change is unlikely to pass, but the fact that it could be considered at all is a signal of how precarious Pelosi’s position has become in some Democratic circles. An unexpected challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, in 2016 drew the support of nearly a third of the caucus, and dozens of Democratic candidates have disowned her in the current election cycle.
For Republicans, the prospect of a Pelosi speakership represents unchecked liberal extremism, and plastering her face across attack ads has become a favorite GOP campaign tactic. A June Gallup poll found only 29 percent of Americans view her favorably.
“The specter of a woman in leadership is something that has been threatening,” said Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. “The Republicans smartly have built her into this kind of bogeywoman in the same way they did with Hillary Clinton.”
For a growing contingent of Democrats, though, Pelosi is also a threat, a tired symbol of the old establishment unwilling or unable to fight for progressive ideas. In the same Gallup poll, 55 percent of Democrats had positive opinions of her, her lowest rating within the party since 2009.
Stirring internal dissent less than two months out from pivotal elections is risky. It is also unnecessary, some say, since the caucus leadership vote is nearly a month after Election Day.
“Call me November 7,” said progressive talk radio host Arnie Arnesen. “This is such a freaking distraction… Elections matter. This one does not right now.”
However, if taking on a powerhouse like Pelosi for the speakership is going to succeed, it is probably easier to get started now than it would be on the heels of a midterm victory.
“I’m trying to think of somebody who has been rewarded with retirement after winning the House,” Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said.
Tillery dismissed much of the talk about replacing Pelosi as political posturing by younger progressive candidates and suburban white male centrists who need to distance themselves from her to win.
“I think all these things are just political trial balloons to give cover to different segments of the diverse constituency Democrats are trying to wrangle,” he said.
Pelosi has not yet commented on the latest intraparty machinations, but she has been unfazed by challenges to her leadership in the past and she has already declared her intent to stay on as speaker.
"If Hillary Clinton had won, and the Affordable Care Act was protected -- I feel very proprietary about that -- I was happy to go my way…," Pelosi told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a recent interview. “But to have no woman at the table and to have the Affordable Care Act at risk, I said 'As long as [Trump's] here, I'm here.'"
The Democratic leader was featured on the cover of major national magazine for the first time earlier this month—something she said is “long overdue”—unapologetically defending her political viability in a lengthy Time profile.
"I can take the heat and that's why I stay in the kitchen," she told the Associated Press in August.
Pelosi is confident enough in her position that she has already begun laying groundwork for Democrats’ 2019 agenda if they take the House.
“As we approach the end of this Congress, we must Be Ready for the prospect that we will be in the Majority in January,” she wrote in a post-Labor Day memo to Democratic lawmakers.
Planned priorities include lowering health care costs, increasing pay and economic growth, and cleaning up corruption. She also mentioned potential bipartisan legislation to protect so-called Dreamers and prevent gun violence.
“I don’t think they’d be able to push her aside,” Tillery said. “She’s there because she has the loyalty of a lot of the current membership and they’re not going anywhere.”
Nobody disputes that Pelosi is deeply unpopular with the general public and few would describe the 78-year-old as the voice of a new generation, but her strengths are also readily apparent. She has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Democratic candidates in her House career, including more than $90 million this election cycle.
“This is just what it means to be a leader. You become an avatar for all things good and bad for your party,” Tillery said.
Pelosi aides correctly noted to Time that other congressional leaders have similarly low approval ratings, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is even less popular than she is. Arnesen doubts whoever eventually replaces Pelosi as Democratic leader is going to rate much better.
“Tell me who [Republicans] don’t have issues with. Who do they want to kumbaya with?” she said. “Nobody… They don’t hate her more than they hate anybody else.”
If Democrats retake the House but not the Senate, Pelosi has argued she is uniquely prepared to lead the House against a Republican Senate and Republican president because that is the dynamic she inherited when she became speaker in 2006. Given McConnell’s legislative ruthlessness, experts say that factor cannot be discounted.
“Frankly, there’s nothing like experience,” Ferson said. “Mitch McConnell is extremely skilled at what he does. [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer is extremely skilled at what he does… You could argue Nancy Pelosi, the person who muscled through the Affordable Care Act, who controls with an iron fist, is exactly the person you need.”
Pelosi might not be able to secure 218 votes if the caucus rules were changed, but it is not clear anyone else could either. The two Democrats most often cited as potential replacements are 79-year-old Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Delaware and 78-year-old Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina.
“Steny Hoyer is not changing the face of the Democratic Party… Having Steny Hoyer replace Nancy Pelosi, optically, is a step backwards,” Ferson said.
New York Rep. Joe Crowley, 56, would have been one option, Tillery observed, but he was defeated in his primary by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“They are going to face a reckoning because of the question of why shouldn’t there be a Beto O’Rourke or Hakeem Jeffries figure in leadership in the House, and I don’t think they have good answers to that,” Tillery said.
Republicans are gearing up for their own post-election leadership drama. With Speaker Paul Ryan retiring, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Jim Jordan, leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus, have declared their interest in the job.
A cadre of democratic socialists and proud progressives seem poised to ride a blue wave into office in November, shifting the balance of the caucus to the left, but experts do not expect the liberal voting bloc to hold sway over the Democratic Party as the Freedom Caucus often has in the GOP.
“I don’t think they have the same ideological fissures,” Ferson said. “It’s more generational.”
According to Tillery, many Freedom Caucus members represent safe, gerrymandered districts, and they are “willing to let the larger caucus burn” to get what they want. As Republicans take aim at entitlements and social safety net programs, he expects the high stakes will hold Democrats together even if ideology does not.
“In a divided government context, the one area the Democrats have always been smarter than Republicans until recently is the reality that shutting down government is bad for business,” he said. “It’s bad for everybody.”
Before they get to elect a speaker, though, Democrats have to win the majority. If they fail, Pelosi could bear the brunt of the blame. Pointing to the shocking defeat Tuesday of a Democratic candidate in a special election for a Texas state Senate seat the party had held for more than a century, Arnesen stressed that Democrats need to focus on victory now and worry about who will lead them later.
“November 7 changes everything,” she said. “I want to see who shows up… I want to feel what the pulse of the base is. Then we can talk about what happens in Congress.”