Here is one clue on how to view efforts to get rid of Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House Democrats. The most progressive Democratic House members, including Keith Ellison, Maxine Waters, Jerry Nadler, and Barbara Lee all support her. This is not to ignore the reality that progressives have complaints with Pelosi including the way the DCCC decides to support candidates in primaries. Inherent in the role of being a party leader is the need to unify the party on big issues, which means disappointing the left sometimes. However, Pelosi is far more progressive than her predecessors and those who have challenged her.
Centrists and hawks have tried and failed to challenge Pelosi’s leadership since 2002 when, as minority whip of the House Democrats, she opposed then–Democratic leader Richard Gephardt’s support of the Iraq War. She stood up to President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s suggestion to back away from the Affordable Care Act. In her book Make Trouble, Cecile Richards describes how Pelosi was able to eliminate a last-minute amendment by anti-choice Democrat Bart Stupak that would have cut abortion providers from the Affordable Care Act. Pelosi’s recent eight-hour speech on behalf of Dreamers defied the conventional wisdom of consultants who are urging Democrats to focus on issues that appeal to “angry white” voters who went for Trump. Democrats will demoralize a lot of their base if they get gaslighted into dissing Pelosi.
Corporate Democrats and their supporters in the punditocracy usually mask their ideological agenda with faux pragmatism and counsel the rejection of Pelosi because of her “negatives”—which are that she is too old, too liberal, too female. Republicans have spent a fortune demonizing her. With Barack Obama less useful as a bogeyman, Republicans have increased their use of Pelosi in TV ads—in 2014, 13 percent of ads for GOP house races featured Pelosi, but that number has rocketed to 34 percent this year.
The New York Times’ Frank Bruni recently touted Dan McCready, a North Carolina Democratic House candidate who promises not to vote for Pelosi for speaker and smugly concluded that those of McCready’s ilk are “recognizing that a Democratic majority requires Democratic maturity.” Bruni’s delusional definition of “maturity” is based on the failed playbook of pandering to a shrinking number of “swing voters” at the expense of inspiring the far larger universe of women, people of color, and young progressives.
Admittedly, there are a few people in historically Republican districts that may prefer an anti-Pelosi Democrat, but the market for this message is very limited. Conor Lamb recently won a close election in a Pennsylvania district that went for Trump by double digits. In a Public Policy Polling survey of his voters, 43 percent said they voted for Lamb because “he will defend social security and Medicare,” 18 percent because “he refused corporate special interest money,” and only 7 percent because “he said he will not vote for Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker.”
The future composition of the House is not in the hands of those who voted for Trump last time but in those who opposed him. As Bernie Sanders has been saying, “When turn-out is high, Democrats win. When turn-out is low, Republicans win.” If Democrats win in all of the districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, they take control of the House. If they can also get the votes of those who voted for third-party candidates, there can be a truly powerful opposition to Trumpism. It’s hard to see how walking away from Pelosi, who has attained the highest electoral office of any woman in American history, will help turnout.
Demonizing Pelosi is a twofer for Republicans. It arouses the misogynistic part of their base while psyching out some Democrats into a fecklessness that depresses their base. Republican pollster Frank Luntz told Fox News with a manipulative gleam in his eye, “There are so many people out there—swing voters—who do not want Pelosi as speaker.” Trump’s Office of Management and Budget head Mick Mulvaney suggested that Republicans “force” Democratic House members to take a position on Pelosi before the midterms. The purpose of the talking point is to bully Democrats into walking away from their most effective progressive legislative leader.
This is not to deny the need for Democrats to cultivate and promote younger people. Pelosi, Democratic minority whip Steny Hoyer, and assistant minority leader James Clyburn are all in their late 70s, but if someone has to step down to make room, it ought not to be Pelosi, who is also the Democrats’ best fund-raiser.
A simplistic age test for leadership is neither moral nor pragmatic. Some people lose focus and energy as early as their 60s and others are sharp and dynamic well into their 80s. The standard should be ideology and effectiveness. Bernie Sanders’s success with young voters suggests that what motivates them is moral clarity and a progressive approach to the issues This is even more true in the post-Parkland environment. Jerry Brown at 80 is one of American’s greatest governors. In the early days of Trump’s administration, Pelosi corralled all Democrats to stand in opposition to efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Maxine Waters has been one of the most effective anti-Trump media voices. Who exactly would replace them? As John Lennon said, “You say you got a real solution, well you know, we’d all love to see the plan.”
That said, sometime in the next several years, Pelosi will step down. If progressives want to address House leadership they should find an alternative to corporate Democrat Joe Crowley, who is angling to be her successor. The most plausible progressive who could succeed Pelosi is 49-year-old California Representative Ted Lieu.
In the meantime, Democrats should refrain from succumbing to right-wing propaganda. The Mercers and Kochs will spend millions to create “negatives” for any effective opponent of oligarchy. Whoever eventually replaces Pelosi will quickly be demonized. The remedy is not to cower in fear, but to fight back.