Checkpoint: The Democrats’ Pelosi Problem

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The 2018 Midterm elections saw record levels of participation by young adults based in part on an idea that the domination of politics by elderly and wealthy Caucasians was detrimental to the diverse identity of the country. Through organized voting, it was postulated, their removal would be assured and Congress would be made more representative of America. In order to secure this ideal and reverse the entrenched gerontocracy, most progressives threw their weight behind the Democratic Party, judging it as the most likely to support rejuvenation in Congress and fulfill their calls for new political leadership. On Nov. 28, three weeks after their victory, Democrats ignored progressive concerns as they voted to proceed with the nomination for Speaker of the House of seventy-eight-year-old Nancy Pelosi, a sixteen term (thirty-two year) white Congresswoman representing one of the richest counties in America.

Rightfully, many young voters felt betrayed and questioned how the Democratic Party could call for change and advocate for refreshing politics without showing any pioneering exuberance for it themselves. In order to dispel accusations of treachery, Democratic lawmakers sought to explain their action by painting a picture of Pelosi as the only real candidate able to meet the threats posed by President Donald Trump while simultaneously strengthening the Democratic Party’s position in Congress. While the former two-term Speaker has certainly shown herself to be capable of vocal opposition against Republican Presidents and staunch advocacy in favor of Democratic policies, many other liberal politicians that have not shown a penchant for the perpetual rule have also proven themselves as worthy checks to the Trump demagoguery.

The near sure ascension of Nancy Pelosi to the Speakership is concerning as it poses two major issues for the future of the Democratic Party. First, with young voters becoming increasingly more involved in politics and presenting themselves as a more influential force at the polls, Democrats will rely on their support in upcoming electoral contests. While a majority of millennials support liberal policies, moves that disregard or fail to address some of their chief concerns, such as the excessive age gap between elected officials and the population they are meant to represent, risk alienating many. Should the Democratic Party choose to retain senior members in serious leadership posts, many of these likely future Democrats may become disillusioned and switch their allegiance to increasingly popular third parties or abstain from participation altogether. Such a scenario would not be unlike the Presidential election of 2016, where distaste for Hilary Clinton paved the way for one the most hostile challenges to progressive ideology in U.S. history.

Second, the monopolization of leadership positions by the eldest and most senior politicians stymies the development of future Democratic leaders. Already, a trend has been noticeable where prominent House Democrats resort to becoming challengers in larger races (e.g. Senate) in order to get ahead, rather than retain their positions and cement Democratic preeminence in their districts. To be sure, creating perpetual incumbents regardless of political color is detrimental to the democratic system of government envisioned by the Framers. However, popular incumbent politicians are able to secure their district’s support for a particular party, making them easier for ideologically similar future candidates to obtain. By hindering the rise of less experienced popular and engaged Representatives, the Democratic Party is restricting the creation of future generations of capable leaders and more robust Democratic electoral subdivisions. With the top three leadership positions filled by septuagenarians, such a transition will be difficult in the future.

The aforementioned internal vote saw the Democratic party largely support Pelosi. However, a small group of thirty-two “rebels” opposed her candidacy, refusing to back an individual who has been at the helm of Democratic leadership for over a decade. While making up a negligible number among Democrats, they posed a serious threat to Pelosi’s prospects for the gavel, as without their support she lacks the 218 votes necessary to win the Speakership in the bi-partisan House. As an apparent compromise, on Dec. 12, Pelosi agreed to support rules intended to “break the gridlock” and impose term limits on Democratic leadership positions, raising the number of her supporters to 210 and ostensibly embraced popular calls for leadership reform. Retroactively limiting the term of Speaker and other high profile leadership positions to three terms (with a fourth term permissible with two-thirds approval from the Democratic caucus), the rule change would limit Pelosi’s reign to 2022.

While hailed as a monumental compromise and a show of good-will, in reality, the agreement seems to work entirely in Pelosi’s favor since the large opposition has been weakened and her tenure allowed for four extra years. At seventy-eight, it is unlikely that she would hold the post for longer than that anyways, and whatever potential gains made are as easily reversed should other members of the leadership, who have publicly opposed the rule change, decide to exert their influence in the chamber at a later date. Furthermore, while new Democrats have potentially gained an ephemeral victory, they have done so at the expense of the greater party, since despite her advocacy for liberal causes she is not a popular figure at the national level. Even among Democrats, many see her as an obstacle to change and blame her for some of the Party’s worst showings, such as in 2010 when the Democrats lost sixty-three seats in the House (their worst performance since 1938) due largely to the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, whose excessive scale was pushed for by Pelosi.

While Pelosi is expected to just barely clinch the position, as of this writing, she nevertheless lacks the 218 votes required to assure victory in an in-house election known for its partisanship and occasional but increasingly frequent protest votes. As with the Hilary Clinton debacle in 2016, the Democratic Party risks showing a very damaging lack of cohesion should she fail to obtain majority approval. Such a scenario would surely damage the party at a crucial time when it holds the majority in the House and faces important challenges such as resolving the partial government shutdown, judicial attempts to invalidate Obamacare and a slew of upcoming budgetary and fiscal deadlines. Without a suitable alternative, the Democratic power vacuum could render the Party and, through its partial control of Congress, the government inoperable at a time when the nation cannot afford inaction.