The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Nancy Pelosi’s strategies were flawed. Democrats must move on from them.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference in D.C. on Sept. 22. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
10 min

With Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepping down as the leader of the House Democrats following the Republicans winning control of the chamber, the Democratic Party should acknowledge the many shortcomings of her tenure and avoid repeating them.

Becoming the first woman to serve as speaker of the House is a tremendous accomplishment in a nation that has long blocked women from positions of power. And some on the right have acted in a disgraceful manner toward Pelosi. Most recently, she has been the target of at least two attempts to physically attack or even kill her — on Jan 6. 2021, and then again last month when a man broke into her San Francisco home in search of her and assaulted her husband, Paul. Even aside from those incidents, many Republicans have used over-the-top and at times sexist rhetoric to demean her.

So there’s an understandable instinct to defend her, particularly for left-leaning people like myself who generally agree with Pelosi’s policy goals. But it’s important to honestly and fully assess her record.

In the simplest sense, Pelosi’s tenure should be regarded as lackluster because the party has won a House majority in only four of the 10 elections since she became House Democratic leader in late 2002. The Democrats’ sixth defeat under her leadership means that they will yield power to a class of Republicans who are among the most radical, extreme people to ever control the chamber. It is hard to think of anyone with such a mixed record being allowed to lead a high-profile organization for 20 years — let alone considering a 21st and 22nd, as Pelosi did over the past few days.

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And it’s not just about the Democrats’ failure to win the House under Pelosi’s leadership. Unlike even President Biden, who has only really led the party since 2020, Pelosi has been one of the chief decision-makers and prominent figures for the Democratic Party for the entire past two decades. Over that span, the party has consistently lost elections at the state and federal levels, resulting in numerous terrible policies being adopted by Republicans while good ones are stalled. An increasingly radical, antidemocratic Republican Party already dominates much of the country and could win control of the entire federal government in 2024.

Almost no one in the United States has had more opportunities to stop the rise of the Republicans than Pelosi. Considering that Republican strength, her tenure cannot be viewed as successful.

Pelosi herself wasn’t on the ballot in the districts that Democrats lost this month, nor was she, say the party’s presidential nominee in 2016. And several other congressional Democratic candidates have long been in top leadership positions despite lackluster results for the party: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (Ill.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.). (Hoyer announced on Thursday that he is leaving party leadership.)

But Pelosi has been at the helm longer than Schumer and in a more powerful role than Clyburn or Hoyer. She has been a defining figure in the creation of today’s Democratic Party, which has four major flaws that led to consistent electoral and policy failure: excessive caution; an over-reliance on centrism; a brand that is little more than “we are not as bad as the Republicans”; and weak organization at the local and state level.

Pelosi’s failures stem in part from overlearning from her first major success as a party leader.

After the 2004 elections, when Republicans won the House, Senate and presidency, Pelosi and then-Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid were in charge of a Democratic Party that was divided and listless. For the 2006 elections, the two Democratic leaders recruited centrist and even conservative candidates to run in purple and red areas. They opted against pushing an innovative policy platform in favor of a strategy of focusing largely on the foibles of George W. Bush and congressional Republicans.

The Democrats flipped both the House and Senate. It’s not clear whether they won in 2006 because of the Pelosi-Reid strategy or simply because the Iraq War and Bush’s attempt to partially privatize Social Security irritated voters. Either way, it became Democratic orthodoxy that the way to win was a combination of promoting bland policy ideas that polled well, nominating centrist candidates and emphasizing the errors of the Republicans over the Democrats’ own vision.

Pelosi herself aggressively enforced that orthodoxy. She was the most powerful figure in determining which candidates ran in House races and which political operatives directed their campaigns. And through her weekly news conferences and other public remarks, she shaped broader party strategy. Only a few months after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other members of “the Squad” were elected in 2018, Pelosi started criticizing them as impractical and overly focused on media attention, making clear that she was hostile to the progressive movement in the party and that other Democrats should be as well.

She constantly argued that Democrats should emphasize policies such as guaranteeing Americans were not denied health insurance because of preexisting conditions, even as repeated election defeats for Democrats showed that focusing on economics and health care alone did not galvanize voters.

Running on “we are not as bad as the Republicans” is a great strategy when a Republican president is in office pushing unpopular things. But in the absence of a Bush or a Trump in the White House, it’s not enough. Democrats won the House under Pelosi’s leadership only when a Republican president was in office and unpopular (2006, 2008, 2018, 2020).

Centrism alone isn’t sufficient either. While Pelosi was bashing the Squad in 2019 and 2020, the more centrist members she was aligned with were often running bland campaigns. Many of them were defeated. So the Democrats lost ground in the House two years ago even as they flipped the presidency and the Senate.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, Pelosi was again urging Democrats to focus largely on so-called kitchen table issues. Thankfully, others in the party ignored her and campaigned on abortion rights, democracy and other issues, in addition to the economy. Meanwhile, Pelosi ally Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) became the rare figure leading a party’s campaign arm who lost his own seat. New York Democrats leaned into left-bashing and centrism — and their loss of four seats in that state is a big reason the party won’t get a majority in the House.

Even when they won their elections, Pelosi’s centrist candidates were a huge problem for Democrats. In both 2009-2010 and 2021-2022, House Democrats struggled to pass major legislation because a bloc of centrist lawmakers kept balking. While these centrists usually claimed that they objected to some specific provision in these bills, in reality, these members were often simply eager to distance themselves from the broader Democratic Party. By recruiting candidates whose only real ideological commitment was not being Republicans, Pelosi and her allies all but guaranteed the party could not govern effectively.

Pelosi’s hyper-caution is related but distinct from her centrism. It has been a huge disadvantage for Democrats to have been led for so long by figures like Pelosi who are reluctant to pursue a policy that doesn’t start out with 60 percent support in a poll. Republican leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Donald Trump are willing to take controversial actions that sometimes work out, such as McConnell’s blocking of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, for almost a year in 2016.

For the first several months of 2019 and then again in the days after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, Pelosi personally stalled efforts to move toward impeaching Trump. She wrongly feared electoral backlash in 2019. In 2021, she wrongly hoped Trump’s Cabinet would invoke the 25th Amendment and force him out of office.

In politics, sometimes you have to do things that are not obvious political winners from the start. Impeachment got more popular in 2019 as Democrats pressed forward with it. Campaigning on threats to democracy helped Democrats this cycle, even though polling showed the economy was many voters’ top issue.

After Jan. 6, immediate votes in the House and Senate on Trump’s impeachment and removal would have put a lot of pressure on Republicans. But once the Democrats stalled, it was easier for the GOP to unify and vote overwhelmingly against punishing Trump.

State-level politics is, unsurprisingly, an area that a congressional leader like Pelosi hasn’t been focused on. But not mobilizing the party to fight against the Republican takeover of state governments was a huge oversight by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders over the past two decades. One of the biggest reasons Democrats lost the House this year is that Republican-controlled state legislatures drew congressional district lines in ways that made it very hard for Democrats to win a majority.

Pelosi has had many successes in her tenure. She was a critical supporter and ally of the first Black president. She was a key figure in the passage of the Affordable Care Act, one of the most significant federal policy accomplishments in decades. She helped push Biden’s robust agenda through the House the past two years.

But Pelosi should have stepped down years ago, as most congressional leaders do after their party is defeated in elections with them at the helm.

The danger now is that Democratic voters and officials are deeply invested in the myth of Pelosi as a great leader. Such reverence will prevent an honest accounting of her failures and a real break from her tenure.

The likely replacement for Pelosi as Democratic leader is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.). I can’t predict the future, but I think this is a mistake. Jeffries represents a change in terms of identity. He would be the first Black House Democratic leader and at age 52 is 30 years younger than Pelosi.

But in terms of strategy and vision, I worry he won’t be a real break from Pelosi’s approach. He has been part of the party’s leadership team for the past four years, a major supporter of Pelosi and a critic of those who want to push the Democrats in a fresh direction.

The Democrats are moving on from Pelosi. But to thrive, the party must move on from cautious, centrist, uninspiring Pelosi-style politics.