This is complete baloney, total bunkum, pure applesauce, and it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenge Democrats face now. If you see that challenge — figuring out how to oppose and contain Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress, and capture back what the Democratic Party has lost of late — as a complex whole with complementary but separate parts, you can understand why so much of the advice Democrats are getting is so wrong.
The most critical mistake people are making is that they’re taking their opinion about why Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton is the president-elect — most often, that Clinton didn’t appeal enough to those vaunted white working class men — and applying it to every choice Democrats have to make. Pelosi’s reelection as minority leader is a perfect example.
The critique of Pelosi has a couple of parts, which are legitimate as far as they go, but they don’t go very far. She’s old (76), as are her top lieutenants Steny Hoyer (77) and Jim Clyburn (76), and the party could use new faces and fresh ideas. Democrats have lost ground in recent elections, and picked up only a few seats this year. She’s a wealthy San Francisco liberal woman at a time when everyone says the party needs to appeal to white working class men.
All of that is basically true. But if you view it in excessively narrow terms, you get something like Rep. Tim Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi, which was built almost entirely on the most simple-minded kind of identity politics. Ryan didn’t say that he should lead House Democrats because he’s a legislative wizard, or because he’s a great fundraiser, or because he’d be adept at keeping the caucus together, or because he had devised a brilliant strategy to limit the damage Republicans can do and position Democrats for future victories. His appeal was this: We need white working class Midwestern men, and I’m a white man from a working class area of Ohio. While 63 Democrats did vote for Ryan, the remaining 134 stuck with Pelosi, in no small part because she has been one of the most skilled and effective House party leaders in American history.
The extension of Ryan’s logic — that Democrats should apply their opinion about what went wrong demographically in the presidential race to every decision they have to make from this point forward — would suggest that, if you think their problem is white working class men, then they need a white guy with working-class roots to be House Minority Leader, and chair of the Democratic Party, and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Sassafras and Ceiling Fans.
What Democrats actually need is a comprehensive strategy for opposition, and a division of labor in carrying it out. If Tim Ryan is particularly adept at making the case for Democratic policies to Midwestern white working class voters, then his time might be best spent barnstorming across the Midwest going on every TV and radio show making that case. In the House and Senate, Democrats need leaders who can maintain unity within their caucus and know how to use the institutional levers available to the minority to limit the damage Republicans can do and force them into uncomfortable situations and the occasional outright defeat.
And what else do they need to build that opposition? They need organizations that will sue the Trump administration and submit thousands of FOIA requests to find out what it’s actually up to, since the Republican Congress certainly won’t be carrying out any oversight. They need an intense focus on state legislative races — backed up by ample funds from the liberal billionaires who are ordinarily more interested in what happens in Washington — to reverse the gains Republicans have made at the state level in the last eight years.
They need to create a permanent mobilization infrastructure that registers voters and can turn them out on election day, not just one that is created anew every four years and then gets dismantled. They need a national strategy to use initiative campaigns to both make policy gains and turn out voters, since Democratic policy ideas are still overwhelmingly more popular than Republican ones (and part of that initiative agenda should be the expansion and securing of voting rights). They need to work extra hard on those state races in 2018 and 2020 so that after the next census, they’re the ones redrawing district lines, the way Republicans were after 2010.
Yes, they should find, promote, and highlight charismatic Democrats, young or otherwise, who can appeal to a wide swath of voters. Pelosi and her Senate counterpart Chuck Schumer are skilled inside players, but less appealing as spokespeople (Pelosi understands this perfectly well, which is why she rarely makes appearances on the Sunday shows or other high-profile forums; Schumer is not quite as self-aware). Being in the opposition means there is no one person who embodies the party, and at the moment that’s a good thing — it can be represented by Democrats of all races, genders, ages, and regions.
And they shouldn’t forget that the current Democratic president is leaving office with approval ratings in the high 50s, while the next Republican will enter as the most unpopular new president in memory (Barack Obama’s favorable ratings were about 20 points higher eight years ago than Donald Trump’s are now). They can mount an effective opposition and gain back what they’ve lost — but only if they’re smart about it.