Tim Ryan’s challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last year had no chance of seriously threatening her position because the bulk of the Democratic caucus is more liberal than him. But a new one from California’s Linda Sanchez taking aim at Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Assistant Minority Leader James Clayburn could prove quite serious indeed.
Sanchez is a mainstream liberal, and is on the leadership ladder as vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. That Sanchez is willing to publicly call for change suggests she believes there is widespread sentiment among House Democrats that new blood is needed, and that saying so out loud will help her chances of moving up. As Congress scholar Josh Huder says: “The fact a California Democrat is taking this public stand is noteworthy. This push against Pelosi may be strong enough to push her out.”
The blunt truth is that Nancy Pelosi, despite her considerable strength as a party leader in the House, has failed in one important way: She hasn’t made any plans for her succession. Hoyer and Clyburn haven’t been helpful, either. This was becoming clear after the 2016 elections, but unless there’s more going on than has been reported, Pelosi has wasted the last year without doing anything about it.
Uncertainty about Pelosi’s future can make it more difficult to hold the party together. Meanwhile, semi-open jockeying among various candidates for the top positions could wind up becoming a distraction, with hopefuls trying to one-up each other to score points within and outside the caucus.
Some of that can be healthy. For example, if leadership candidates work harder at raising money for 2018 House campaigns, it could mean more overall fundraising for Democrats. It could also get awkward, or worse, with leadership candidates potentially trying to differentiate from each other on ideological grounds.
Democrats don’t have much experience with this. For almost 90 years, when the top Democrat in the House needed to be replaced, the second-ranked Democrat took over. There have been contested spots within the leadership, but nothing like the possibility of a fully open upcoming slate.
The good news for Pelosi is that her current job is the easiest of the four congressional party leaders: The House minority just can’t do much, and it’s not too difficult to keep them united. And it’s still not too late.
Pelosi appears to be well-respected within the House Democratic caucus, and us well-liked and well-respected by Democratic Party actors outside of the House. If she puts some sort of succession process into effect, she might be able to keep Democrats united as they enter into an election year, and prevent chaos after it. She might be able to prolong her own position if she can assure the caucus that it’s not an indefinite hold on the office, though it’s certainly possible it’s too late for that.
Democrats have a real possibility of winning a House majority next November only to sabotage it with bitter leadership fights immediately after the election, followed by a Congress in which an unusually inexperienced leadership team has to guide what would likely be a very small majority.
Pelosi should have acted long ago, or at least last November – but having failed then, it’s time for her to do something about her caucus’s future as soon as possible, before the future runs right over her.
Jonathan Bernstein, a Bloomberg View columnist, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.