As soon as the rebellion against Nancy Pelosi within the Democratic caucus in the House began to take shape, I (like many others) was highly skeptical that it could succeed. Yes, many members, including some of the newly elected, had said during the campaign that they wouldn’t support her bid to continue leading Democrats as speaker of the House.
But Pelosi is the most skilled tactician in Congress, and the rebels couldn’t get their act together. They had no real argument against Pelosi other than “It’s time for new leadership,” none of them wanted to stick their neck out and run against her, and they had no apparent strategy to reach their goal.
So carefully and methodically, Pelosi chipped away at her opposition, offering incentives for those who opposed her to come to her side. Rep. Marcia Fudge was the only opponent who would say she was even considering running against Pelosi, so the two sat down for a meeting. When it was over, Fudge had a promise for a new subcommittee on elections that she’d chair, and Pelosi had Fudge’s support. She made deals with one potential opponent after another, or just persuaded them that supporting her was in everyone’s best interest.
Now Pelosi seems to have wrapped things up:
Rep. Nancy Pelosi clinched the votes for a second stint as House speaker on Wednesday after agreeing to serve no more than four years in a deal with a group of Democratic rebels — a significant concession to their demands for generational change.
The group of insurgents wanted new blood in the top Democratic ranks and maneuvered for months to deny Pelosi (D-Calif.) the votes she would need. After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating, Pelosi backed off her resistance to setting a date for her departure but avoided becoming an immediate lame duck.
“Over the summer, I made it clear that I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders, a recognition of my continuing responsibility to mentor and advance new members into positions of power and responsibility in the House Democratic Caucus,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Almost immediately, seven Democratic holdouts said they would back Pelosi. Their support would be enough to secure the House majority that she needs for her election to speaker on Jan. 3 — 218 votes if all members are present and voting for an individual.
There are a couple of stories you can tell about this sequence of events. One is that the rebels forgot who they were dealing with, and Pelosi crushed them like bugs. Another is that while they didn’t get immediate satisfaction, they accomplished their goal nonetheless by forcing Pelosi to put a limit on her time as speaker and ensuring that the caucus will develop a new generation of leaders.
Both those stories are true to some degree, but what’s most important is that Democrats reached a conclusion in which everyone wins. And that shows just how deftly Pelosi played this conflict.
Pelosi will be in charge for the immediate future, and any other outcome would have been ridiculous, like the Lakers deciding that they’re going to put LeBron James on the bench because it would be nice to give other people some playing time. Everyone acknowledges that she’s the most capable legislative leader in either party, and she has been through precisely the current situation before, 12 years ago. In 2006 Democrats took over the House, and Pelosi led them through two years of opposition to George W. Bush, followed by two years of furious legislating at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency.
They hope that's what will happen again, and it's also possible that we could see a repeat of the next phase of the Obama presidency: the backlash. That's almost certainly why Pelosi was willing to limit herself to four more years as Democratic leader. If a Democrat becomes president in 2020, Republicans will probably have a strong midterm election in 2022, perhaps strong enough for them to wrest back control of the House. At that point there won't be much more legislating to do, and Pelosi — who will be 82 years old — can pass off leadership of what will then be the minority to someone else and take a well-earned retirement.
As for Pelosi’s opponents, they can legitimately say that if they hadn’t mounted this rebellion she wouldn’t have agreed to put a time limit on her departure, and there will now be more opportunities for younger members to take high-profile positions — which will be good for those ambitious individuals and good for the party as a whole.
That will enable them to save face by saying they (kind of) accomplished their most fundamental goal. For her part, Pelosi hasn’t really given up anything, since she would likely have wanted to retire after 2022 anyway, and the various goodies she passed out to wavering members, like efforts to focus on the issues that matter to them and a “leadership development program” for members who want to move up, cost her nothing to offer.
All of which shows that unlike a certain someone we could mention, Pelosi is a highly skilled negotiator who understands that there are times when the person across the table needs to be defeated, times when they need to be co-opted, and times when you can arrive at a solution that’s good for everyone. Imagine that.
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