You might have missed the news this past week that Rep. Xavier Becerra will leave Congress to become California’s attorney general. Becerra wasn’t the highest-profile member of Congress. But his departure is a piece of a broader exodus of Democratic House members once regarded as the next leaders of the party in Washington.
For Becerra, the move makes sense. His stock in Washington had fallen somewhat in recent months, and with Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as minority leader last week — and the retention of the two other top leaders for House Democrats — it would be at least two years before Becerra could move up the leadership ladder. Now he will be positioned to run for a statewide office (governor in 2022 or 2026, Senate in 2018) or be plucked by the next Democratic president as a Cabinet pick. Plus, he is being appointed to the job by Gov. Jerry Brown, meaning that he will run as an incumbent in 2018. (The job is open because Kamala Harris won election to the Senate last month.)
But for the Democratic Party in Washington, Becerra’s decision is part of a troubling trend: young, ambitious lawmakers either falling by the wayside or giving up on the House entirely. Consider the fates of the handful of Democratic legislators seen, as recently as a few years ago, as the next generation of House speakers:
- ●Becerra (Calif.): appointed California attorney general.
- ●Chris Van Hollen (Md.): won an open Senate seat in last month’s election.
- ●Steve Israel (N.Y.): retiring from Congress this year.
- ●Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.): removed as chair of the Democratic National Committee.
It’s remarkable. An entire generation of Democratic leaders in Washington has been washed away — and the generation younger than the Van Hollens and Israels of the country looks too young right now to step up and fill the leadership vacuum. (Names on that list include the likes of Reps. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.)
There are lots of reasons for this lost generation — some of them unique to the individuals. For Wasserman Schultz, for example, her tone-deaf handling of the Bernie Sanders movement within the party led to her untimely demise as DNC chair on the eve of the Democratic National Convention over the summer.
But the common thread is that Pelosi, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C) have had a death grip on the party’s top slots for a very long time. Pelosi was just reelected to her eighth term — 16 years! — as the party’s leader in the House. Ditto Hoyer, who has been the second-ranking Democrat for just as long. Clyburn has been third-ranking Democrat in the House for a decade. (The trio are 76, 77 and 76, respectively.)
While that’s great if you are — or work for — Pelosi, Hoyer or Clyburn, it’s bad if you are young, ambitious and looking to move up the political chain in Washington. More than a decade of total stasis among your party leaders even as Democrats lost 1 in every 5 House seats they controlled at the start of 2009 is a tough pill to swallow.
It’s hard to disconnect the long run of power by these three House Democrats from the atrophying of the caucus below them. Consider it this way: A legendary basketball coach just keeps coming back for the next season — then the next season after that. The guy is a legend. No one — not the boosters, not the athletic director, not anyone — is going to push him out. But what usually happens in those situations? The coach loses a bit of his edge even as his top assistants, who have served loyally but are ready for a chance at the big job, leave the program for other opportunities. When the legendary coach finally does call it quits, the program is typically in bad shape — and there’s no natural heir waiting in the wings to rebuild it.
Pelosi, finally, appears to have woken up to what her decade and a half in power has meant for the party underneath her. In working to beat back the challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) last week — Pelosi got 134 votes to 63 for Ryan — the California Democrat made changes aimed at giving some of the younger members of the caucus more prominence. She created the position of “vice ranking member” on House committees and reserved it for lawmakers who have spent eight years or less in Washington. She also agreed to changes in some appointed leadership positions that would elevate more junior members.
Those changes are a good first step. And no one in their right mind would question the historic nature of Pelosi’s run in leadership or her remarkable effectiveness in keeping her caucus together. But it’s impossible to miss the fact that an entire generation of potential House Democratic leaders has been lost over the past decade and that much of the blame lies at the feet of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn.