There’s an old saying, attributed to nobody in particular, that Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Their current opportunity is to close ranks after a major victory – their biggest haul of House seats since the Watergate midterms of 1974 – and march in 2019 with unified determination to battle the Trumpster fire.
But alas, Democrats being Democrats, some House rebels have decided to celebrate the party’s return to power by trying to dump their House leader – the same leader who, by dint of her strategic savvy and fundraising prowess, deserves major credit for leading them back to power. Yup, their first official act is to launch an intraparty feud. Go figure.
Most Americans probably aren’t focused on the fate of Nancy Pelosi, the ex-House Speaker who hopes to ascend again at the start of 2019. I won’t bore you with the latest inside maneuvers. Suffice it to say that the last thing Democrats need, now that Americans have decisively voted for checks and balances, is a narrative that shows them fighting over the spoils of victory. Fox News is already blasting “Democrats in Disarray,” and even if Americans don’t follow the intramural details, they’ll get the gist.
Democrats have surged into the House majority in the 2018 midterms, flipping nearly 40 seats, drawing 8.5 million more votes nationwide than the GOP, and winning on suburban GOP turf in red states like Oklahoma, Georgia and Kansas, in large part because Pelosi helped make it happen.
She successfully urged her House candidates to hammer away at health care by defending the Affordable Care Act (the same act that she shepherded through the House in 2010). She successfully urged her House candidates to forego pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about impeaching Trump (which most swing voters didn’t want to hear). She reportedly raised $130 million to fuel the Democratic message.
And when Republicans recycled the strategy they’ve pursued since 2006 – demonizing Pelosi in TV ads – they failed abysmally. The 58,630,154 Americans who voted blue – the highest total in midterm history, and poised to go higher when the remaining votes are tallied – did so because they opposed Trump and/or endorsed Democratic priorities. Going forward, they will continue to oppose Trump and endorse Democratic priorities... unless the Democrats screw things up.
The current intramural quest to dump Pelosi as the new Speaker has great potential to screw things up. Some were elected after pledging to disrupt the party’s status quo. They have a variety of complaints: Pelosi is either too liberal or too establishment or she’s an old face at a time when the party needs new faces in order to win. One of plotters, Congressman Filemon Vela of Texas warned last year, “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi on top,” but he’s still plotting despite being proven wrong.
Having won the House with Pelosi on top, the Democrats’ chief challenge during the run up to 2020 is to expand on the beachhead they’ve seized in the House. That will require a Speaker who knows how to herd cats, who can count votes and instill discipline, and who can ensure that the issues America cares about (climate change, health care, economic help for the average Joe) will not be trumped by the Democrats’ understandable urge to investigate everything.
The rebels’ quest to dump Pelosi would be greatly aided if they had somebody who was as qualified as Pelosi. But they have nobody. One rebel leader, Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio (who has previously tried and failed to dump Pelosi), has publicly insisted: “There’s plenty of really competent females that we can replace her with.” But he hasn’t identified a “really competent female” who can muster the House votes to win a Speaker election, or match Pelosi’s leadership creds.
Here’s a wild unsolicited suggestion: Pelosi should pledge to serve only one term as Speaker, and vow to step down if the Democrats hold the House in 2021. In the meantime, she should loosen the seniority rules and empower the diverse new members who are determined to end the Democratic party’s ossification. That’s a fight worth having – all in the service of their ultimate goal: Confronting Trumpism. As Katie Hill, one of the newly-elected Democrats reportedly said in a private meeting last week, “We don’t have time for internal squabbling — we have to get things done.”
That’s preferable to what humorist Will Rogers used to say: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com.