The Nancy Pelosi challenge is good for the Democratic Party.
In the week before Thanksgiving, it seemed as though the recently won Democratic House majority had already been squandered. A group of insurgent Democrats had challenged the leadership of presumed Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Arguing for a younger and more ideologically diverse leadership, sixteen current and future Democratic representatives signed a letter pledging not to vote for Pelosi in an upcoming leadership election. This letter provoked an immediate backlash from liberal representatives and advocacy groups. Pelosi opponents were castigated for being moderates and a homogeneous group of ageist white men. Pundits sounded the alarm, alleging that a failed Pelosi leadership vote would harm the Democratic Party and even threaten Democratic control of the House.
The conflict only ended when potential Pelosi challenger Marcia Fudge, after a day of terrible press coverage, took a position on a voting rights special committee and endorsed the Democratic leader. Pundits interpreted this decision as the moment that Pelosi won the speaker’s gavel. But this episode will not easily be forgotten. The sixteen Democrats who publicly signed the anti-Pelosi letter will either be defeated on the floor or have to rescind their pledge. With the exception of Fudge, Pelosi’s opponents will also likely be sidelined in committee assignments throughout the next Congress.
Which side is right in this early Democratic leadership fight? Did the insurgents overplay their hand and underestimate Pelosi’s prowess as a leader? And, as advocacy groups have suggested with their scorched-earth strategy against the insurgents, should the liberal future Speaker be immune from future challenges?
The merits of the Pelosi challenge in the House were dubious in many ways. Fears that Pelosi would be an albatross for Democrats and a target for Republican ads eventually fizzled. Brett Kavanaugh, the Central American migrant caravan, and Trump’s proposal to ban birthright citizenship dominated many of the late ad buys. Pelosi was able to raise massive amounts of money, outspending her Republican opponents by tens of millions of dollars. As for her Democratic opponents, many of them had no coherent strategy against her and no committed challengers for the Speaker position. In “The Pathetic Pelosi Putsch,” Bill Scher of POLITICO was able to find at least six fundamental flaws in the Pelosi opposition, from their lack of supporters and legislative experience to their “failing to articulate a substantive critique about Pelosi’s tenure as speaker and minority leader.” These flaws allowed Pelosi supporters to quickly label her opponents moderates who hated her for her politics, her age, and even her gender. While these accusations were overblown, Seth Moulton, Tim Ryan, and the other insurgents were too disorganized to present a compelling counterargument.
But at the same time, even a failed challenge is better than no challenge at all. In the past, primaries and leadership fights have helped to redefine political parties. Activist challenges influenced the party platforms of presidential candidates in 1976, 1980, and 1992. The 2010 Tea Party wave shaped the current Republican Party by threatening every moderate and party official interested in compromise with a far-right primary challenge. Just this year, liberal primary challengers reshaped the New York Democratic Party and forced Governor Andrew Cuomo further to the left than he had been in years. By threatening the electoral future of a politician, a primary challenge or leadership fight can accomplish what millions of letters and thousands of donations never could.
A primary or leadership challenge could be just the impetus that Democrats need to start responding to their constituents and take action against the interests of their wealthy donors. In the same week that the Pelosi rebellion started, the prospective Speaker issued a proposal making it more difficult for Democrats to raise and spend tax money for their programs. Liberal commentators were aghast, with Jordan Weissmann of Slate decrying the proposal as a “fundamentally conservative idea meant to hollow out the core of progressive government.” These critics also howled when many moderates who had supported Pelosi argued in favor of tamping down the House’s Trump investigations. A string of substantive leadership and primary challenges may result in fewer of these moderate stunts and more appeals to the party’s liberal base.
In many ways, Nancy Pelosi deserves to be the next House Speaker. She has led the party for over a decade, passed numerous pieces of difficult legislation, and waged a successful House campaign that stayed on-message throughout. But in democracies, no position of power is permanent. If Pelosi squanders the next two years by hamstringing her party’s agenda and failing to subpoena the Trump administration, her challengers next time around will be more formidable than sixteen names on a letter.