Something exceedingly bizarre is going on in Congress right now. Kevin McCarthy, second in command among House Republicans, watched his party get trounced in the midterms, and was rewarded with a promotion to Republican leader. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer were quickly confirmed by their respective caucuses to stay in charge in the Senate. Yet Nancy Pelosi, who just engineered the biggest Democratic win in the House since the post-Watergate election of 1974, is the one facing a challenge to her leadership:
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday faced solid opposition from at least 17 Democrats and encountered a significant bloc of undecided women in her bid for speaker, setting the stage for an intense battle over who will ascend to one of the most powerful positions in Washington.
After a campaign in which some Democrats prevailed in competitive districts by promising to oppose her, a coalition of incumbents and newly elected members have denied her a smooth path to the speakership. Those ranks could swell as more races are called.
What’s truly absurd about this is the fact that everyone — both her supporters and her opponents — agrees that not only does no one else have Pelosi’s combination of skills and experience, but also that she might be the most effective congressional leader of the past half-century or so. The current speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, had to struggle to pass a tax cut through a Republican-led House; when Pelosi was speaker she passed cap and trade, a huge stimulus, banking reform, and a whole lot else besides. And of course, the Affordable Care Act — the most important issue in the election we just had? It never would have passed in 2010, at a moment when other Democrats were ready to give up, had it not been for Pelosi’s skill and determination. Seriously, look it up.
Perhaps strangest of all is that she’s facing a rebellion from people who don’t seem to have much idea of who they’d like to replace her with. Her opponents never claim that there’s some other Democrat who would do a better job in the position than her, and seldom raise any substantive policy issue they disagree with her on either (though those leading the charge against her do tend to be more conservative Democrats). What they say instead is that she’s a frequent target of Republican attacks, and it would therefore be better for the party if a different leader was chosen, one who could not be so easily demonized.
This argument was always weak, for the simple reason that Republicans will demonize anyone who leads the Democrats. Demonization is what they do. After a few months of relentless attacks on Fox News and conservative talk radio, Republican voters will be taught to despise even the most unobjectionable figure with an incandescent fury.
But it’s an even sillier argument now. Republicans just spent a zillion dollars airing thousands of attack ads against Pelosi in races all over the country, and how did that work out for them? They got slaughtered, that’s how.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Pelosi is above criticism. As a public performer, she’s pretty mediocre (though I’m told she understands this, which is why she rarely goes on the Sunday shows). Over recent years, she hasn’t done enough to groom the next generation of Democratic leaders in the House. But you’ll notice that when her opponents are asked why they want to replace her, all they can seem to come up with is “It’s time for new leadership.” Which means essentially nothing if you can’t explain why some particular other leader would do a better job at the task of planning legislative strategy, keeping the caucus together on critical votes, and preparing the ground for a Democratic takeover of power, as Pelosi did when she was in exactly this position in 2006.
Does the rebellion have a chance to succeed? It does, but when you walk through the process of electing a speaker, it becomes clear how much of a task Pelosi’s opponents have in front of them. The first stage is a vote within each party’s caucus, at which one person will be selected to be the party’s nominee. While there might be other Democrats who put themselves up — Rep. Marcia Fudge is considering it — the idea that one of them will be able to garner not a few dozen supporters but a majority of the 235 or so Democrats who will be in Congress come January seems all but impossible.
When Pelosi and whomever the Republicans put up for speaker — presumably Kevin McCarthy — go to the floor for a vote, it’s possible that enough Democrats will vote for someone else to deny Pelosi the majority. But they certainly aren’t going to vote for McCarthy. So what happens then?
It’s important to keep in mind that Pelosi doesn’t need the votes of 218 of the 435 members to become speaker; she needs only a majority of those casting a vote on the floor, which wouldn’t include those voting “present,” as members can do. That points a way toward what I suspect will be the final outcome here. Let’s say that once the last few races still outstanding are settled, Democrats have a 235-200 margin in the House. Now imagine that Pelosi can persuade 20 of the members who at one time or another said they wouldn’t support her to not cast a ballot for someone else but to vote “present.” That means the total number of votes would be 415, and Pelosi would need only 208 to win, meaning 27 Democrats could decline to support her and she could still become speaker.
But if no one gets a majority of the votes cast, they just keep voting over and over until someone does. Pelosi’s opponents could be hoping that in a stalemate of repeated votes, Pelosi will step aside in favor of another Democrat who could get the support of the whole caucus. But that isn’t really her style.
This is all a tricky business, and it will come down to who can do a better job of wrangling votes: Pelosi or a small group of conservative Democrats who have long opposed her. Who do you think is going to come out on top in that fight?
But let’s return to where we started. Democrats have a complex task in front of them, figuring out how best to act as a single, determined force. They need to bring accountability to President Trump and his administration, promote their agenda for change, and position themselves for the moment, they hope two years from now, when they actually have the opportunity to implement it. At least some of them want to say to Pelosi, “Sorry, we know you’re obviously the most capable person for the job and you just led us to a historic victory, but since the other side says nasty things about you, even though they don’t seem to work we’re going to pick someone else — anybody else, it doesn’t really matter who.”
No member of Congress has a divine right to a position of leadership. But if the anti-Pelosi side wants to force out one of the most successful leaders in their party’s history, they really ought to come up with a better argument than that.