Nancy Pelosi has retained her leadership position with House Democrats, but the struggle she faced could ultimately define the future of the Democratic Party. With 134 votes for Pelosi, the Democrats in the House of Representatives gave her the two thirds majority that she stated would be her threshold to remain as speaker, but the one third voting for her challenger, Tim Ryan of Ohio, highlighted a growing divide in the party. Some have even suggested that this could, or should, be her last term in leadership.
Prior to the election, most Democrats believed that they had a legitimate chance to take back the House of Representatives, and a good chance of gaining ground in the Senate. That never materialized. What did happen was a Donald Trump victory, and the Republican outsider brought along plenty of down ballot Republicans with him. In the wake of the shocking defeat, Nancy Pelosi found herself on a foundering ship with a good portion of Democrats believing that a leadership change was in order. What happened, and how did a fellow Democrat with little experience mount such a strong leadership challenge?
New demographics trump loyalty in elections.
To his credit, Barack Obama was the first national candidate to challenge the conventional wisdom of the modern era and mount a campaign that went well outside established lines for both parties. He ran in states like North Carolina and Virginia relentlessly. He took his message to the heart of the red states and pressed home his message of change. Setting aside his record as a President, one can acknowledge that the people in those states heard his message and gave him the opportunity to try to make those changes.
At the same time, the Republicans fell into disarray. A sizable chunk of the party faithful decided to file for divorce and started flying flags with “Don’t Tread on Me” as their motto. The message to Republicans didn’t get through with Mitt Romney’s campaign, but Donald Trump picked up on it and parlayed it into a major upset. In doing so, he also followed Obama’s lead and treated the map of previously blue states as a road atlas, battling furiously in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, which were a couple of his biggest pickups on election night.
To be sure, Republicans alone didn’t ensure a Trump victory. The results indicate that he picked up votes across the map. He was the radical, in terms of strategy, in the election. The strength that he showed in traditionally blue states like New York and other Democratic bastions showed that two Americas went to the polls, and when it was over, his America won.
He understood, as perhaps Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats did not, that working-class America wanted something completely different than what Beltway insiders were offering. And there were enough people in that group to pull off an upset. In other words, working-class people were looking for leadership. With no alternatives on the other side of the aisle, many people voted for him that might not have done so.
Father Time caught up with Nancy Pelosi’s leadership.
It’s true of any enterprise, but amplified in politics, that people who have been in a position of leadership tend to lose touch with their followers over time. Nancy Pelosi represents the oldest guard of Democratic leadership. Her top deputies are septuagenarians. They all have records and reputations that are there for the checking.
More importantly, Pelosi’s greatest strengths were liabilities on the new electoral map. She represented strong party loyalty as much as leadership, which meant that Pelosi was isolated from the many voices in the Democratic electorate that flocked to Bernie Sanders as an alternative to the party’s perceived growing subservience to big money and the entrenched elites. It was Hillary Clinton’s turn. She’d played along, and the party would reward that. Old fashioned party loyalty is a thing of the past, as the election would prove.
Nancy Pelosi is a successful fundraiser. In the old days, that alone would plug anyone into a leadership position. It still does, but if a politician is wired into the big money and flaunts it, that’s a liability. The Democratic rank and file made it clear in this election, with Bernie Sanders as its voice, that its leadership, like Clinton and Pelosi, cannot decry the evils of Wall Street in front of the microphone, while collecting checks from Wall Street tenants backstage. In the age of the internet, dichotomy is peril on election night.
Along came Tim Ryan and, perhaps, a second Tea Party.
Prior to this leadership struggle with Pelosi, few outside of his district, would have been able to identify Tim Ryan. His message to the Democratic leadership was a poignant one. He argued that Pelosi and other party leadership had lost touch with working class Americans, and that the party agenda did not match the needs of those people.
Jobs, fair pay, and lowering costs of essential services like healthcare and a college education would have been a message working class voters could have embraced. Bernie Sanders proved that. When it came to the Trans Pacific Partnership, Donald Trump sounded like a union organizer. How does a billionaire casino owner get that high ground unchallenged?
Ryan is correct on whether or not the Democrats have lost touch by virtue of the proof of the election outcome. He realized that Trump was not solely a reaction to Obama. While many played up the alt-right and racism as the key cogs in Trump’s wheel, and it is to his discredit that he did not distance himself enough from the worst of them, it is equally true that the working class threw up its hands on election night in dismay at the Democrats. Many who didn’t vote for Trump simply stayed home.
Republicans were talking jobs and international trade throughout the campaign. Democrats were pointing fingers at the sideshow on the edge of the Republican tent. Ryan believes that his party should be embracing the economic issues that crushed it. Now, some are openly calling for a Tea Party style revolt against the leadership of that party. With a strong network within labor unions, it isn’t a stretch to envision that scenario.
What’s next for Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Leadership?
Apparently, Ryan’s message was not lost on Nancy Pelosi. She is planning on incorporating a more diverse style of leadership that includes voices from outside of the Democrats’ coastal bastions in New York and California. Time will judge if that is enough.
What is certain is that the Democrats have far more to do to regain their footing than throwing a few Midwestern politicians into the mix. Ryan argued that the party needed real leadership back to the ground from which the vast majority of their support derives. If Nancy Pelosi wants to show the kind of leadership that swept the elections of 2008, she’s going to have to reach into the party ranks and find some representatives of Main Street if Ryan is correct.
Wall Street is no friend of the electorate Pelosi has been chosen to serve in leadership again. The challenge to Pelosi’s leadership underlines that sentiment. Nancy Pelosi will need to change her tactics to meet that challenge. If she doesn’t, Democrats had better prepare for leadership from across the aisle for eight years, or a revolution of leadership in the party ranks.
[Featured Image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]