California Democrat Nancy Pelosi is now all but assured of becoming the next speaker of the House of Representatives. In late November, the House Democratic caucus voted to nominate her for the position; on Wednesday she agreed to limit herself to four years as speaker, a deal that allowed her to pick up at least seven votes, paving the way for her to win the gavel. This outcome was probably always less in doubt than it may have looked to some.
Pelosi remained the strong favorite by masterfully playing different factions of opponents against each other, co-opting potential challengers like Marcia Fudge of Ohio by giving them important positions, and through a media campaign touting her record of accomplishment and her very solid credentials, all of which made it harder for liberal Democrats in Congress to oppose her. For Pelosi the fight was all but won when progressive critics realized that if the liberal Congresswoman, who has been in Congress since the Reagan administration, was deposed as leader, it would be from the right of the party. Once that occurred, Pelosi was able to offer progressives more power in the Democratic caucus in exchange for their support.
The opposition to Pelosi was never fully realized. It was based on a battery of criticisms that in some cases had merit, but no specifics. The idea of fresh leadership is always nice, but without policies and people representing that leadership, it is just a platitude. Pelosi’s opponents also confronted a dilemma in repeating warmed-over conservative talking points about Pelosi being a drag on the Democratic Party. Those arguments might be necessary in the swing districts that elected some of them, but in a Democratic congressional caucus the sexism and indeed homophobia – in conservative circles “San Francisco values” has long been code for either gay or gay-friendly – underlying those criticisms was never going to fly. In the end, Pelosi framed the debate as between a good liberal who knows the job and some young white guys who wanted more power. That argument was one she was never going to lose.
As fascinating as it was to watch a congressional master at work, it is possible that both sides were asking the wrong questions and engaging in the wrong debate. The question of who the next speaker should be was, in some respects, less important than what the speaker’s job now is. Both sides in the battle over who would win the position made their argument based on an understanding of Congress that may no longer be as relevant.
In doing that they overlooked how Congress has changed, as well as the particular challenges that a Democratic Congress will face in a Donald Trump presidency. The days when a congressional leader had to work with a president of either party to pass legislation, reach compromise and find some kind of bipartisan balance, or when major legislation often received support and faced opposition from members of both parties, are gone. That means the ability to count votes, reward support, know when to allow members of the majority party to vote against the speaker out of political necessity, and to advise, cajole and threaten the president – skills that Pelosi has sharpened during her three decades in Congress – are no longer as pertinent because this Congress is not going to pass any significant laws.
The next Democratic speaker is not going to work with Trump on legislation because he has shown so little interest in legislating even when his party controlled both houses of Congress. Similarly, the next speaker will not be working closely with the Republican House leadership to find compromises because the rancor between the parties is too intense, and will likely become even more intense during the new Congress, as the House begins its promised investigations into issues like Trump’s relations with Russia.
The major task facing the next speaker will probably not be vote counting and legislating, but holding the Democratic caucus together and crafting a balance between supporters, both inside and outside Congress, who want to relentlessly investigate the president and those who believe that would be an unwise strategy. To a great extent this is more about setting the tone for Congress, rather than delivering votes or cutting deals. The job nonetheless requires political acumen and toughness as the speaker will come under constant attack from Republicans, Fox News and other usual suspects.
Those who argued over who should be the speaker never really wrestled with this. The position that Pelosi excelled at before and that congressmen like Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan and others feel, with no apparent reason, she is suddenly unqualified for because some see her as an electoral liability, has gone away. Its replacement has not yet taken shape. The question for the Democrats is whether it is best to go into the unknown with an experienced leader, or whether they should move in a more conservative direction with fresher faces who may be out of step with the progressives of the Democratic Party. For Speaker Pelosi, defining the job could prove much harder than winning it.
Lincoln Mitchell is a writer and scholar based in New York and San Francisco. He teaches in Columbia University’s Political Science Department and is the author of several books, most recently “Baseball Goes West: the Dodgers, the Giants and the Shaping of the Major Leagues,” Kent State University Press, 2018. @LincolnMitchell
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