If a male congressional leader had led his party to historic gains in a pivotal election — like the 39-seat gain Democrats made in the House of Representatives in this year’s midterms — not only would his party hold onto him as its leader on Capitol Hill, there wouldn’t even be significant debate about it. Yet here we are: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who became the first female speaker of the House in 2006, looks poised to become speaker again but only after holding off a small flurry of opposition from both progressives and moderates in the House.
That the idea of abandoning Pelosi was ever even a semi-serious prospect reflects a sexist, ageist double standard. That Democrats appear to be coming to their senses, just in time for their Wednesday vote on House leadership in the next Congress, shows that as they take over the majority role in the House, they’re poised to pass an early test of Politics 101: Pelosi is their strongest leader. Ditching her would be foolish.
Yes, party leaders speak for the party, articulating the party’s message — earlier this month, 16 House Democrats signed a letter stating “Democrats ran and won on a message of change,” and, therefore, they were “committed to voting for new leadership.” But messaging is something other members of Congress can do. Central to leadership is moving the party’s caucus forward toward key goals. And that’s what Pelosi does.
Her legislative achievements are huge: Along with Democrats in the Senate, in her first two years as speaker she dodged repeated Republican roadblocks on the way to enacting an $800 billion stimulus package that helped the U.S. economy pull back from the brink of crisis. She shepherded the biggest achievements of the Obama era through the House, including the Affordable Care Act — without the help of any Republican votes — and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. She passed a cap-and-trade bill in the House that was stymied by then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). I’m personally sympathetic to the oft-expressed wish among progressives that Democrats would’ve accomplished more during the Obama years, but that’s an argument for abolishing the Senate’s undemocratic 60-vote threshold, not for unseating Pelosi.
Her success winning Democratic seats shouldn’t just be measured by 2018, her party’s largest House gain since Watergate, it should be measured over time. The 2010 midterms were, as President Barack Obama said then, a “shellacking,” costing Pelosi her speakership. But under her leadership, House Democrats gained seats in 2006, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2018. In the 2018 cycle, she raised a reported $135 million. Since she has been in leadership, she’s raised a reported $714 million — approaching three-quarters of a billion dollars for Democrats. No doubt, money is a big problem in partisan politics, but a core responsibility of congressional leaders is helping provide their members with the resources to win.
Another responsibility is navigating intraparty battles, which Pelosi does with aplomb. She rose to speaker during the Iraq War era, charting a path to opposing the war while keeping Democrats together during a time when they were as divided as at any point in recent history.
As an aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), I saw Pelosi’s skill up close and under pressure, particularly during the congressional standoffs over the debt ceiling in 2011 and 2013.
Being elected speaker, though, is not a reward for past accomplishment, so if you need fresh evidence of Pelosi’s skill, look no further than her deft maneuvering against the effort to dislodge her. First, she identified that the power in her caucus was not with the moderate rebels, including members of the ironically named Problem Solvers Caucus. She extended an open hand to, and secured the support of progressive freshman standout Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). When intraparty rivals floated Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), a former Congressional Black Caucus chair, as a challenger, Pelosi quickly recruited Fudge to her side, naming her chair of an elections subcommittee. In a few weeks, Pelosi reduced her opposition from boasting they were “100% confident” they had the votes to remove her to scrambling to save face.
That’s congressional sausage-making on display. It’s not always pretty. But no matter your ideological leanings or policy priorities, no party — and no one who cares about the success of a party — can afford a leader who can’t pull that off.
The move to depose her centered around the vague desire for “new leadership.” But newness ranks way behind organizational ability as a job requirement for speaker. Democrats should heed the example of soon-to-be former speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). When Republicans ousted former speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), they committed political malpractice, swapping Ryan’s semi-dynamic delivery of GOP talking points for Boehner’s ability to wrangle votes behind the scenes. Boehner served Republicans well, navigating the rise of the tea party while securing the only foothold in power his party would enjoy for the first six years of the Obama administration, and he used it to push deficit reduction over Democratic opposition. Republicans got antsy, though, and got Ryan, who now not only leaves the speakership, he leaves Congress.
Like Reid, Pelosi understands that you can often do more if you don’t worry about what people say about you. For years, she’s brushed off Republican efforts to peg her as a “San Francisco liberal.” And when Democrats feel they have to publicly distance themselves from her, her response is: “I think if they have to do that to win an election. … I’m all for winning.” That’s how it’s done.
Politics often forces you to choose between the head and the heart, but this should be a no-brainer. Reelecting Pelosi would not only defy the Republican narrative and sexist double standards; cement capable leadership for Democrats in the next Congress; and put a history-making figure back in place as second in the line of succession to the presidency. It also means that House Democrats will have recognized that this is the first test of their new majority, and that they’ve passed it.