The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Nancy Pelosi is trying to reassure anxious Democrats about her leadership

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks at her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 17. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is moving on several fronts to try to settle Democratic nerves after this month’s poor election results so that she can secure another term leading the caucus.

In a letter sent to colleagues late Monday, and in a round of media interviews, Pelosi is both looking backward at past successes for a blueprint to finally win back the majority and looking ahead by appeasing younger, ambitious lawmakers who feel left out of the 76-year-old leader’s close-knit circle of power.

Her main strategy is based not on any new agenda item or tactical messaging shift, but on the hope and expectation that Republicans will try to radically reshape federal entitlement programs in the same manner that they did the last time they had unified control of the White House and Congress, in 2005.

“At that time, we committed to each other that we would be unified and disciplined,” Pelosi recalled in an interview with The Washington Post’s Plum Line. “[George W. Bush] had just been elected. He gave us an opportunity by saying he would partially privatize Social Security. Everybody stuck together. The opportunity that we have now is the equivalent of the opportunity we had in ’05.”

[Democrats will hold firm against Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, Pelosi vows]

That period, leading up to the successful 2006 elections that gave Democrats a four-year hold on the majority, came just as Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) entered his second term in the House, in his early 30s, representing Northeast Ohio and its fading manufacturing plants. Now 43, Ryan has launched a long-shot challenge to end Pelosi’s reign in a leadership election Nov. 30 after another disappointing year at the polls left Democrats deep in the House minority.

For at least six years, Pelosi has had her share of internal dissidents, particularly among the Congressional Black Caucus and a few dozen Midwestern Democrats who feel alienated by the mostly coastal leadership team. But the usual suspects received a jolt from a collection of younger, junior Democrats who reacted angrily after their party gained just six seats in an election that Pelosi had publicly and privately assured would result in more than 20 new seats.

Those up-and-coming Democrats have never served in the majority and worry that the top ranks of committees are filled with veterans of more than 25 years on Capitol Hill. They also see Pelosi’s inner circle dominated by a few close allies like Reps. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who have served a combined 68 years in Congress.

[How some of Nancy Pelosi’s strongest allies turned into leading antagonists]

To that end, Pelosi sent a letter to the entire caucus that outlined several proposals designed to give new assignments guaranteed to go to younger lawmakers. She would create a “vice-ranking member” of the 21 permanent committees to serve as the No. 2 Democrat on the panel but limit it to someone who has served four terms or less on the committee.

She would also take the current leadership post filled by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant Democratic leader, who has served almost 25 years in the House, and turn it into a special slot that is reserved for a Democrat who has served three terms or less. This would take effect whenever Clyburn retires.

Creating new seats at the leadership table is not a new move by Pelosi in the face of a challenge. After the disappointing 2014 midterm elections, during which Democrats lost 13 seats, Pelosi created something called the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, complete with more than a dozen lawmakers serving on the new panel.

However, back then, she turned the reins over to another close ally, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), and the outfit was mostly viewed as just an appendage to Pelosi’s own leadership office. Barely a year into leading the new office, Israel announced he would not run for reelection in November.

Now Pelosi is proposing to keep that office but make it a position elected by the entire caucus, limiting the potential leaders of it to those Democrats who have served five terms or less.

These offerings to the next generation of Democrats might prove critical to limiting defections in next week’s content with Ryan, because as Politico noted in its interview with Pelosi, half her caucus wasn’t serving in Congress a decade ago when she led Democrats to the majority.

At this stage, with few expecting Ryan to win, Pelosi’s image may rest on her public prediction that she already has more than two-thirds of the votes from her caucus. If she rings up an overwhelming victory, her powerful hold on the caucus will remain, but a substantial number of votes for Ryan would be embarrassing.