House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi isn’t going anywhere.
In an interview with POLITICO on Monday, the California Democrat, facing a long-shot leadership challenge from Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, insisted she’s the only one who can bring Democrats back to the House majority. Just remember 2006, she said. After President George W. Bush won reelection, Republicans were dreaming of a “permanent majority” until Democrats trounced them the following election, vaulting Pelosi into the speaker’s chair.
And Donald Trump will supply the ammo for a repeat performance, Pelosi predicted.
Yet there is one thing the 76-year-old Democrat leader won’t discuss: when she’s going to leave.
“I don’t intend on this phone call, or any conversation with members, to make myself a lame duck,” Pelosi said. “What you have to do when you’re going into this is to go in with the most strength as possible. That’s just the way it is.”
“I know how to do this,” she added. “I’m not asking anyone to support me for what I have done, one thing or another, whether it’s politics or policy or money. I’m asking them to support me on what I will do in the future.”
Pelosi, however, also knows that after 14 years of running the House Democratic Caucus, coupled with the party’s dismal showing on Election Day, there is significant dissension in her ranks. So she’s planning on remaking the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, giving more members a say in the Democratic messaging operation, and appointing “vice-chairs” on committees to, give lower-ranking lawmakers additional input.
While none of these concessions directly diminish Pelosi’s authority, they’re designed to defuse the unhappiness among junior Democrats. Many of them complain privately they don’t have a say in formulating strategy or message. The question is whether that will be enough or whether Pelosi will have to implement more changes.
“Yes, I have been listening to members. Some of this they have already empowered me to do, and some of this is analogous to 2005-06,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi will be presenting some recommendations to the caucus soon.
“I want to move this along as quickly as possible — not hastily, because we want to get input from everybody – but as quickly as possible because we have some real issues to deal with,” Pelosi said, pointing to looming policy clashes with the incoming Trump administration over Medicare and entitlement programs.
Yet Pelosi repeatedly brings up the events of a decade ago. For her, the lesson is clear – past is prologue. What worked before will work again. Trump and the Republicans will overreach, and Democrats have to be ready to jump at the opportunity when they do.
The problem with this approach is that roughly half her caucus was not in office at that time, and they don’t remember Pelosi’s role in leading a dispirited party into the majority. All they can see now is four consecutive bad election cycles — 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 — with their party sliding further into the minority.
This year was supposed to be different, with Trump at the top of the ticket. Yet Democrats netted only a half-dozen seats (a few races are still uncalled), far short of the double-digit gains Pelosi had been predicting for months.
Another challenge is that Democrats did a formal review after they got clobbered in the 2014 election, an effort led by retiring Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a close Pelosi ally. So now for the second time in two years, Democrats are again having to revamp their operations to deal with an electoral mishap.
Even Pelosi — who is overwhelmingly favored to be reelected as Democratic leader on Nov. 30 — can only overcome so many of those episodes. She needs to show progress on some front.
But if Pelosi is sweating the challenge from Ryan at all, she clearly isn’t showing it. In a half-hour interview, she never mentioned his name once. Pelosi has continued to quietly reach out to members, personally calling the entire Democratic Caucus — including newly-elected members — to ask for support.
She did the same before the election to wish them well. And she regularly sends handwritten notes to her members.
This much is clear, as always: No one will outwork Pelosi.
“I see a very good opportunity for us to win the majority,” Pelosi insisted. “Much of this will be pivoted off what the Trump administration will be doing. … We have to make sure people know what this means for their lives.”
Other Democrats have come out strongly for Pelosi. During a stop in Lima, Peru on Sunday, President Barack Obama said Pelosi “combines strong progressive values with just extraordinary political skill, and she does stuff that’s tough, not just stuff that’s easy.”
“There’s no harder worker, no smarter person, no person that knows how to plan better than Nancy Pelosi,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said on CNN Monday. “She has been fantastic in that regard.”
In addition, Pelosi and other top House Democrats have noted that Hillary Clinton, as the party’s presidential nominee, was responsible for pushing the Democratic message during the election, and that down-ballot lawmakers were forced to respond to that. In their view, it’s unfair to blame House Democratic leaders for falling short on that front.
“A lot of it was beyond our control,” Pelosi has said of the election results.
In an interview, Ryan downplayed Pelosi’s claim to have locked up “two-thirds” of the caucus. He believes that as much as half of the Democratic Caucus is up for grabs, and he has made the claim in repeated TV and print interviews that Democrats must change their message – and their messenger – if they’re going to win back voters in suburban and rural districts, especially white working-class voters.
“We’re offering people an alternative to what’s going on now, to the status quo,” said the 43-year-old lawmaker from the depressed Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio. “We’re not twisting any arms, we’re not making people feel bad. We’re just saying it’s ‘gut check time’ for the Democratic Caucus.”
“Republicans are running America’s government right now,” he added. “We need to figure out do we do what we’ve been doing, which got us in to this spot, or do we try something new? And so I am offering myself up to serve the caucus.”
Ryan said he’s personally reached out to most of the caucus, and plans to talk with the rest soon. He declined to disclose details of his whip operation, and it remains unclear how many votes he can realistically win.
Former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) got 43 votes when he ran against Pelosi following the 2010 Democratic wipeout. If Ryan failed to win that many, it would be seen as an embarrassment.
More than 30 members – led by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) – supported a delay in the leadership election. Ryan has worked this group for support, according to Democratic sources. Whether he can grow it beyond that core is the key question.
While carefully avoiding any personal attacks on Pelosi, Ryan is floating a variety of leadership changes, some of which Pelosi has adopted already. On Monday, he suggested making the DCCC chairmanship an elected position. Technically, it already is, but the reality is that Pelosi has proposed her choice, which is then ratified by the caucus.
So far, Ryan has only received public endorsements from two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Kathleen Rice (N.Y.) and Ed Perlmutter (Colo.). While Ryan has only called for Pelosi to be removed, Perlmutter would go further, replacing the entire House Democratic leadership: Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).
“It’s an uphill climb for Tim, there’s no question about it,” Perlmutter said. “But I do think there is a real sentiment in the caucus that change needs to happen… We need new leadership. Whether that translates into Tim’s election, I don’t know.”
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