Nancy Pelosi and the question of age

MARY CALVERT/REUTERS - House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington November 14, 2012.

It’s quite a thing to see a large group of female politicians boo a reporter who asks about their leader’s age.

But that’s exactly what happened Wednesday morning when NBC reporter Luke Russert asked Nancy Pelosi, during her press conference announcing she intended to remain her party’s leader in the House, whether it might be time for the party to usher in younger leadership. Pelosi, who has been part of her party’s leadership in the House for 10 years and was its first female Speaker, is 72.

Gallery

Gallery

With a chorus of jeers and cries of “discrimination!” from the group around her, Pelosi responded to the question with indignation. “Oh you’ve always asked that question, except to Mitch McConnell,” she said. Hardly hiding her disdain, Pelosi went on to say “let’s for a moment honor that’s a legitimate question, although it’s quite offensive,” before going on to speak of her work helping to elect younger women to Congress.

But amid all the hissing and laughter from the gallery, it’s worth asking: Is age ever a legitimate question? Do we not ask the same question of men? And when is it appropriate for older leaders to step aside to make way for the next generation?

Yes, it’s worth asking, even if it doesn’t make nearly as much sense when it comes to the House, and even if Pelosi is right: This sort of question does not get asked very often of veteran male leaders.

The House of Representatives is an elected body of members who must fight for their jobs every two years and whose success is rewarded with positions typically based on seniority. Had Pelosi stepped down, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the minority whip who is one year her senior, would have been her likely replacement. The next guy in line, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), is also 72. As the Post’s Paul Kane noted Monday, “few Democrats believe that a younger challenger to Hoyer and Clyburn would be successful.” Even if she did step aside, there would likely still be someone over 70 in the top two jobs.

Plenty of other organizations, however, benefit greatly from making sure young up-and-comers have key leadership responsibilities in the early and middle stages of their careers. Maybe that’s one reason Congress has so many problems. A place that rewards people so much for seniority and whose members are constantly trying to secure their jobs is not necessarily creating incentives for effectiveness. While mandatory retirement ages often seem superficial and ageist to me, finding ways to give effective leaders more responsibility, whatever their age or seniority, is typically a pretty smart bet on the future.

The issue in this case, of course, is that Pelosi, at 72, is effective, at least when it comes to the all important issue of raising money. She has been called, arguably, her party’s second-best fundraiser, bringing in $328 million since she came into party leadership in 2002, including $85 million in the 2012 cycle alone, report Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake. And while the Democrats were routed under her leadership in the 2010 elections, losing 63 seats and the majority, they gained seven seats in the House this year, with some races still undecided.

The right answer isn’t a simple call. Pelosi has the support of her party. And yet, making a path for younger leaders to gain responsibility is important for the party’s future. As a result, I agree with those lawmakers who suggested a middle option: Pelosi could have announced this was her last term as Democratic leader, setting off a succession race over the next two years.

It would have been a good one. Doing so would allow Pelosi to see through causes about which she cares, continue playing a major role as party fundraiser, and give younger leaders in the party a chance to raise their national profiles. Sending signals now that she plans to step down would also blunt the inevitable attacks the GOP are sure to throw at their favorite Democratic bogey(wo)man in the 2014 midterms.

Older leaders, even controversial ones, shouldn’t be asked to step aside simply for their age. But when the time is right, creating a visible and accessible path for younger members to lead is, ultimately, part of the job.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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