Abrams is precisely the sort of inspirational leader that the moment demands, and the move would send a clear message to voters that their concerns have been heard — and that Democrats can find innovative ways to elevate the next generation of party leaders.
Contrary to popular understanding, the Constitution does not require the speaker of the House to be a member of Congress, although every speaker in American history has been. And while some speakers have exercised deep influence in backrooms in Congress (such as the enormously powerful Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famed board of education, the small hideaway in the Capitol where he gathered colleagues, including Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, for drinks and plotting strategy), modern speakers have also become the public face of their parties and salesmen for their agendas. At times, they have even driven the national political conversation.
This has especially been true when the opposition party holds the presidency. House Speaker Tip O’Neill found himself thrust into the spotlight after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, when Republicans also captured the Senate. This outcome left the House as the sole source of Democratic power in Washington. O’Neill became the face of the Democratic Party, the bulwark against Reagan’s agenda and the chief protector of the safety net that Democrats had spent a half-century constructing.
O’Neill left a strong mark on the speakership by thinking strategically and creatively. A key part of his success was galvanizing electoral support for Democrats. After Reagan scored numerous policy victories in his first year in office, O’Neill and his aides crafted a messaging strategy for bouncing back in the 1982 midterms. They worked to get their message about the Republican threat to Social Security, the dangers of Reagan’s tax cuts and the cruelty of Republican spending cuts to the public, even though they lacked the White House bully pulpit. In the process, O’Neill elevated the speakership in the public’s eyes. His tenure illustrated the power of a speaker to shape public strategy in addition to backroom maneuvering. That represented a marked change from the traditional role of speaker, who typically was chosen for the ability to unify and direct his caucus behind the scenes and score policy victories.
Twelve years later, Newt Gingrich, a politician on the other end of both the ideological and tactical spectrum, again reinvented the position of speaker. Gingrich played a major role in creating the hyperpartisan, ultra-aggressive style of politics that has come to define the modern Republican Party. Gingrich was a master of manipulating the media to his advantage, and his lack of concern for bipartisanship excited and unified the Republican base. The long-term wisdom of these tactics is debatable, but their effectiveness is clear, as they ushered in the Republican Revolution of the mid-1990s.
When Gingrich and his band of Republican revolutionaries captured the House for the first time in 40 years, he became a media sensation, driving the national conversation as Republicans worked to implement their Contract with America. So prominent did Gingrich become that President Bill Clinton was forced to assert in a 1995 news conference, “I am relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance. A president, especially an activist president, has relevance.”
While Clinton eventually triumphed in the long budget battle between the two in the winter of 1995-1996, Gingrich charted a bold public course that helped pull his party in new directions.
The modern speakership has been defined by charismatic and memorable personalities such as O’Neill and Gingrich, and the strongest, most successful speakers are the ones who remade the role.
Two years into the Trump administration, norms and traditions in Washington are fading, creating new opportunities for change. Democrats can use the speakership to create space for dynamic new candidates, particularly those who fought gallantly in deep-red states and lost on Election Day. The new speaker should not be chosen from among those hardened insiders who “worked their way up” through party structures; that sort of politics as usual is what voters rejected Tuesday.
Instead, the party should choose someone talented and galvanizing, suited to the moment.
With Republicans in control of the Senate and the White House, the speaker will be the face of the Democratic Party. This person ought to be visionary, inspirational and speak to a changing set of priorities among the Democratic electorate. These qualities, more than tactical maneuvering or parliamentary mastery, is what Democrats need in the age of Trump. Abrams, a highly qualified lawyer whose campaign was a target of structural and intentional voter suppression, is exactly who Democrats should elevate to this highly visible role.
On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi formally launched her bid to become speaker of the 116th Congress. Admittedly, replacing the deeply unpopular Pelosi with a relative outsider and a nonmember of the House would be an unorthodox choice. Abrams is not in Congress, and it appears she is likely to lose a historical gubernatorial election in Georgia, where she would have been the first black female governor.
But the move would yield immediate dividends. Choosing an outsider would acknowledge how unpopular Congress is with the public. Choosing one as dynamic, popular and promising as Abrams, from a state in the South where Democrats have been gaining in strength, would signal a real change in the party’s philosophy — and anoint a leader who has the communications skills to go toe to toe with Trump.
A bold move like this would also fortify the alliances of progressives who helped pull Democrats over the finish line on Tuesday, strengthen the Democratic bench for Senate and presidential runs in 2020 and serve as a strong rebuke of the voter suppression and racism in Georgia at the hands of likely governor-to-be Brian Kemp. If House Democrats make this choice, Abrams as speaker would be a win for the party and for democracy. The move would also serve as a long-overdue acknowledgment of the contributions black women have always made to the Democratic Party, doing much of the work in exchange for very little credit or influence.
If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that the best hope for preserving a stable democracy for all Americans is to find and promote talented new candidates who represent a visionary Democratic Party. The role of the modern speakership must evolve with the expectations of the electorate, and Stacey Abrams would provide a welcome remake of a historically dynamic position.