U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is one of the greatest congressional leaders in history. Her stewardship of the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 through a complicated Democratic caucus (with almost no Republican support) alone places her in the top tier of leaders. While her success on health care reform — seemingly now more permanent because of the Republican failure to repeal it last month — is the most noteworthy of her legislative victories, the first and only woman to serve as speaker has shown success on a variety of other issues, including the Obama stimulus package, financial regulatory reform, the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
However, as we move into the 2018 election cycle, for the good of her party and the ideals for which she has fought so effectively, it is time for Pelosi to announce she will not serve as speaker if the Democrats retake control of the House in 2018. As shown in the special election in Georgia’s 6th District this summer, attacking Pelosi remains a successful strategy, particularly in districts where Republican crossover remains essential for Democratic victories. There, in a flurry of direct mail pieces, Democrat Jon Ossoff was linked to “San Francisco liberal” Pelosi, who was portrayed as Ossoff’s puppet master or the face behind his mask. As confirmed by generic partisan surveys, Democratic control of the House is clearly achievable (and would be devastating for the Trump presidency because of the investigatory power that would come with it), but is only possible if the party picks up some seats in districts that — like Georgia’s 6th — veer slightly Republican.
No D.C.-based political leader is perceived positively by Americans. However, while GOP Speaker Paul Ryan is more highly rated by the American public than “Republicans in Congress” generally, according to recent polls, Pelosi is decidedly more negatively perceived than her fellow Democrats. Why this particularly low showing by Pelosi? It’s a combination of factors:
* Having been a party leader since 2002, Pelosi is most closely connected to the polarized political era in which we live, which Americans recognize as fundamentally flawed;
* While Pelosi effectively framed herself as a “grandmother” when becoming the first female speaker in 2007, it’s undeniable that bias toward her based on her sex is one component of her negative perception among some;
* Finally, Pelosi represents the attitudes of her home district well. Across much of America, “San Francisco values” (a phrase that still carries with it more than a tinge of homophobia) is shorthand for a political worldview that is out of touch with the middle of America.
None of these factors that drive Pelosi’s unpopularity is alterable. Together, they make her a cookie-cutter scare-tactic in competitive congressional districts across the country.
Following the Democrats’ failure to gain significant ground in the House in 2016, Pelosi was challenged by Rep. Tim Ryan of northeast Ohio for minority leader. Pelosi defeated Ryan by about a 2-to-1 margin in the party’s caucus, but a number of members said off the record that they regretfully supported Pelosi against the backbencher Ryan.
Even her most ardent defenders recognize that Pelosi is not the future of the party. One of Pelosi’s failures as a leader has been in her inability to foster a new generation of House leaders to take control of the body moving forward. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, is a good tactician but lacks media savvy and is himself 78 years old. Thus, the clock has likely ticked out on the caucus to identify a new long-term leader in time for the midterms.
One creative (and maybe fantastical) answer to this quandary: going outside the House for a symbolic leader to lead the 2018 Democratic campaign for the House and to serve as speaker if the Democrats take control of Congress while leaving day-to-day control of the House in the hands of an empowered majority leader (Hoyer). Such a move is constitutional, as the speaker of the House is not required to be a member of the body; it is also a short-term solution. That said, there is an individual who is a unifying force within the Democratic Party, with particular support in the Rust Belt and with decades of legislative experience. Might this be a role for former Vice President Joe Biden?