The longtime Democratic House leader has had many successes, but changing times call for changes at the top.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty
On Sunday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was once the highest-ranking woman in government in American history, appeared on Meet the Press and was asked about the sexual harassment allegations against Michigan congressman John Conyers. She blew it.
“We are strengthened by due process,” the House minority leader told Chuck Todd days after Conyers himself confirmed that his office had paid a settlement in response to a 2105 sexual harassment complaint. “Just because someone is accused, and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be—John Conyers is an icon in our country.” After an uproar and Conyers’s resignation from the House Ethics Committee, she quickly backtracked, issuing a statement that said, “No matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment.” On Tuesday, the Detroit News reported that another former Conyers staffer had come forward to allege harassment by the longtime congressman, and on Thursday Pelosi said Conyers should resign.
Still, Pelosi’s fumble is just the latest example of why she’s no longer the best person to lead House Democrats. The Democrats have many problems, but they can’t solve them with an aging leadership that has led to them being stuck in the minority for four House election cycles. Republicans have no problem switching leaders even when they’re in power—a hard-right caucus forced House Speaker John Boehner to step down in 2015—but Democrats have stuck with Pelosi since 2003. That’s too long.
When Pelosi came to lead the House Democrats back then, after Minority Leader Dick Gephardt stepped down to run for president, the party was at a low point. It had lost seats in the 2002 midterms, just the third time since the 1930s that the party controlling the White House had picked up seats in the House during a midterm. A year later, President George W. Bush won reelection and picked up seats in the Senate and House along with it.
But surfing on an anti-war, anti-Bush wave in 2006, Democrats snatched 31 House spots and Pelosi became Speaker, the first woman to ever reach that height. In 2008, Democrats rode the coattails of Barack Obama to pick up even more seats, before the Tea Party backlash knocked them out of the majority in the House.
In those two years when Democrats had a unified government, Pelosi shepherded several pieces of landmark legislation through the House, including the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Dodd-Frank financial industry reform, despite presiding over a chamber full of conservative Democrats. She also helped get the Affordable Care Act passed, first with a public option and then, after right-leaning Senate Democrats blocked that version, in its final form.
The six years since have not been as kind. After her term as Speaker ended when Republicans stormed to a House majority in 2010, Pelosi stayed on as minority leader, even though losing a majority is usually seen as a failure for which the leader should be held accountable. Before Pelosi, the last former Speaker to take the minority leader seat after losing a majority was Joseph William Martin Jr. of Massachusetts, who was the Republican House leader from 1939 to 1959 and served two nonconsecutive terms as Speaker. (In the Senate, Democrat Harry Reid stayed on as Minority Leader for two years following the 2014 elections, but announced his retirement early in 2015.)
Pelosi and the rest of the aging House leadership have made it impossible for younger members of the party to take over, which has no doubt contributed to the perception that the party is out of touch. Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and assistant Democratic leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina are all in their late 70s, but more importantly have all been in the leadership for at least a decade.
There are two reasons why Pelosi has held on for so long. One is that though some Democrats oppose her, they can’t put together a credible challenge. When Democrats lost the majority in 2010, North Carolina Congressman Heath Shuler, a former NFL quarterback, won just 43 votes in his bid to replace her. (Shuler retired from Congress a few years later.) After the top-to-bottom failure of the 2016 election, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan ran against her on a quasi-populist platform. Ryan, who voted for an anti-abortion amendment during the 2009 debate over the Affordable Care Act, implied that the party focused too much on social issues. He got a bigger share of votes than Shuler did, but Pelosi won the election handily after finally promising positions of power be handed to more junior Democrats.
The second reason, which also partially answers why no prominent House Democrat has ever stepped up to take on Pelosi, is that she’s a very good fundraiser. Pelosi has raised almost $600 million since 2002, and has raised more than $25 million alone this year, most of which she gave to the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
“She is a great fundraiser, but if the money we’re raising through her leadership is not helping us win elections, then we have to have this conversation now,” Democratic congresswoman Kathleen Rice of New York said in a June interview. (On Wednesday, Rice sharply criticized Pelosi for her handling of the Conyers’s harassment scandal, saying Pelosi’s comments on Sunday “set women back and—quite frankly, our party back—decades.”)
What’s more is that there’s now a roadmap for making huge fundraising gains that doesn’t run through the pockets of the ultra-wealthy. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, running explicitly against the idea of superPACs, broke fundraising records for numbers of contributions on the back of small dollar donations. “If the party can honestly and authentically change its message and actions, Democratic activists would embrace it with incredible enthusiasm,” former Sanders fundraising manager Michael Whitney wrote in a Politico op-ed in August. “Grass-roots donors would jump to help tilt the balance of financial power and to shape the party's vision for future elections.”
Pelosi, on the other hand, seems perfectly content to anger the Democrats’ grassroots over and over again, from her too-slow response to the Conyers allegations to her skepticism of a young socialist’s question about the party’s undying embrace of capitalism to her willingness to bring pro-lifers back into the mainstream of the party. If Pelosi’s political instincts served her well in the mid-2000s, they seem to be failing her now that the base of the party is pissed off and shifting to the left.
This is not an endorsement of Tim Ryan, who has the same bad electoral strategy as Pelosi. Democrats’ success won’t be found in making the party more appealing to moderates. It’ll be found in making the party more appealing to marginalized voters by forcefully fighting for criminal justice reform and abortion rights, to working-class voters, and to left-leaning independent voters who are frustrated that our two choices are both parties of capital. It’ll be found in making itself the clearest possible departure from the Republican Party. If the Democrats are serious about change—and they should be, given their last few years of losses—they need to start at the top.
Paul Blest is a contributing writer for the Outline and Facing South. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.