Democrats on the campaign trail are looking skittish about defending Nancy Pelosi. Others in the House are sounding impatient for a changing of the guard. Pelosi is the wrong target, however: They should be going after Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, so that a healthy fight to succeed Pelosi can actually take place.
Two things Democrats should know:
Congressional leaders are almost always unpopular. Pelosi isn’t unpopular because she’s a liberal, or from San Francisco, or even because of misogyny. She’s unpopular because she’s a congressional leader. As of last June, Pelosi was 20 percentage points underwater in favorability polling. So was Paul Ryan. Both were targeted in ads by the other party in the recent Pennsylvania election. That’s just par for the course throughout U.S. history.
House leaders are accustomed to working at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to earning the adulation of the masses. They are creatures of Washington to the fullest, spending their time on reconciliation instructions and motions to recommit and modified closed rules and 301 (b) allocations. To virtually all voters, this seems irrelevant, and possibly irritating. The actual work of leadership involves the kinds of compromising and deal-making that rarely inspire enthusiasm. Whoever succeeds Pelosi will be an unpopular leader, too.
Besides, the anti-Pelosi message isn’t really about swing voters, who barely know who she is. It helps fire up partisan Republicans. And Republican-aligned media have no problem creating new demons for hard-core Republican voters to get fired up against.
Democrats in Congress who are impatient to move up or who simply believe the leadership has grown stale have a stronger case to make. All organizations eventually need change at the top. Even though Pelosi was an excellent speaker of the House and has been a first-rate minority leader, it’s clear that at 77, she no longer represents a long-term leadership option.
But neither is Steny Hoyer, and neither is next-in-line James Clyburn. It’s absolutely true that Democrats need to prepare for succession in the House, and I’ve criticized Pelosi for not doing so in the past. If there really is pressure to accelerate the process, that’s probably the source of it. The solution isn’t to push her out, however. It’s to push Hoyer out, and probably Clyburn too. Then, House Democrats can have their big fight over their future leader without having to commit to someone untested right away, since they would only be choosing the second-ranked position — whip, if they remain in the minority, or leader, if they win a majority in November.
Perhaps there’s never a particularly good time for a leadership transition. That’s why parties are better off if they establish a process and groom the next generation. Pelosi no doubt benefited from a year as Democratic whip while Dick Gephardt was the party leader, and from several years as minority leader before she became speaker. The best way to make that happen now isn’t to toss her aside and have Hoyer move up; it’s for him to stop blocking the way. By all accounts he’s been effective at his job, but there’s no particular reason to think that of the two of them, she’s the one who’s expendable.
In the meantime, while everyone on the campaign trail will do what they have to do to win, other Democrats shouldn’t be shy about praising their once and perhaps future speaker. Just in terms of job performance, she’s almost certainly been one of the best two modern speakers, along with Tip O’Neill. There’s no reason Democrats shouldn’t be proud of her record, regardless of how she’s demonized.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.