House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi owes Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a big favor. A good case can be made that Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year old Democratic Socialist who upset House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley in June's New York 14th District primary, has made the strongest possible case for the 78-year old Pelosi to take back the Democratic helm.
On a conference call Saturday, Ocasio-Cortez reportedly urged progressive activists organized by Justice Democrats, the group of refugees of Sen. Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign, to challenge Democratic incumbents in primaries who no longer fit their districts demographically or ideologically. Presumably, Ocasio-Cortez assumes that a Democratic-primary electorate in those districts mirror that of a general-election electorate. Her district has a Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index of D+29, meaning that in presidential elections, that district incorporating parts of New York City’s Bronx and Queens boroughs votes 29 percentage points more Democratic than the country as a whole. Ocasio-Cortez also participated in a Sunrise Movement sit-in occupying Pelosi’s office last week.
This is not to pick on Ocasio-Cortez, but she has become something of a symbol of the new class even if the truth is that she and Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, another high-profile Democratic challenger who unseated a Democratic incumbent in a primary (Rep. Michael Capuano in Massachusetts’ 7th District) are more outliers than typical of the new freshman class.
Most of the debate over whether Pelosi should lead Democrats in the 116th Congress that convenes in January is about optics, with one side arguing that the 78-year-old Pelosi, alongside 79-year-old House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and 78-year-old House Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, present the wrong face for a future-oriented Democratic Party. The other side argues that dumping the first female House speaker would look awful coming on the heels of the Year of the Woman II, as there will be at least 126 women in the next Congress, 105 of them Democrats.
But while appearances are clearly important, so is reality. While Democrats have finally gotten back into the House majority after eight years in exile, some Democrats seem content to retreat in the ideological coziness of having a progressive caucus, ignoring the fact that the more liberal the direction of the caucus gets, the more likely they will fall back into and remain in a minority status. For Democrats representing districts that have not been held by a Republican in, say the past 30 years, or in a state that has not voted Republican for president or Senate in a few decades, there is a tendency to forget that what may be popular with the Democratic base where they live might not fly in the places where House and Senate majorities are made and Electoral College victories are achieved. The only way Democrats can hold a sustainable majority is to win and hold congressional seats that are in purple or even red districts—like the ones they held before their disasters of 1994 and 2010, the last two times they lost their majorities.
While several of the younger Democrats mentioned as possible speakers are bright and have a great deal of potential, few have held any real leadership responsibilities or demonstrated the ability to keep this boisterous incoming majority in line. For all of the San Francisco liberal cliché that is always attributed to Pelosi, the reality is that she is really Tommy D’Alesandro Jr.’s daughter; her father served as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, and did eight years in Congress during the Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations followed by 12 years as mayor of Baltimore. Like her or not, it is hard to watch Pelosi for years and not describe her without using the words “smart,” “tough,” and “shrewd,” qualities that could be helpful in fending off some of the more extreme members of the House Democratic Caucus who are pushing hard for impeachment, to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and for a single-payer health insurance program—something that might well happen someday but for the immediate future is definitely a majority-busting issue.
While it is debatable whether Democrats can win many districts with substantial rural and small-town populations, this majority was won disproportionately in middle and upscale suburban districts, ones that are fairly moderate or tolerant on social and cultural issues but not particularly liberal on economic issues. Who knows—many of these possible Pelosi replacements could turn out to be great leaders in the future, but do Democrats really want to take that chance?
To borrow the slogan from the Farmers Insurance television ads, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This does not mean that Pelosi should lead House Democrats beyond the 2020 election. But it does suggest that with the immediate minefield in front of them—Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the 53-47 Republican advantage in the upper chamber, and the prospect of a field of Democratic presidential candidates as big as the 17-person GOP field of 2016—an experienced, tough hand on the tiller might seem advisable. At this point, Hoyer and Clyburn are understandably wondering, “What am I, a potted plant?” but the reality is that if Pelosi is dumped, it will be for someone at least 10 years younger than any of the three of them. As President Kennedy once said, “Life is unfair.” In some realms, there is a lot of merit to on-the-job-training, but at the level of speaker of the House, that’s a pretty risky approach.