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Who Will Speak for the Democrats?

Nancy Pelosi believes she has one more great task left in her long career—saving American democracy. If, as expected, the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives on November 6, Pelosi may become the first Speaker to regain the position in more than six decades (the legendary Sam Rayburn did it in 1955). And at what a moment: Pelosi and the House Democrats believe—and a huge number of voters agree—that they are all that stands between the future of the republic and the broad-based assault on democratic values led by Donald Trump, one of the few people in Washington who’s demonized even more than Pelosi is.

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi; drawing by James Ferguson

Despite her promises to embrace a positive agenda from day one of the new Congress, Pelosi (who has said she might have retired had Hillary Clinton won in 2016) would sign off on a slew of investigations into the Trump administration and what she calls the “brazen corruption, cronyism and incompetence” of the GOP. Sources tell me that subpoenas would fly like ticker tape on issues as diverse as Trump’s long dealings with Russia; his tax returns; alleged money laundering by his family businesses (and whether he, by maintaining stakes in those businesses, is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause); and abuses by Cabinet secretaries of travel and office expenses, as well as other misused perks. “She’s out to make history,” a senior Democratic House aide told me.

Pelosi, seventy-eight, hopes to become America’s twenty-first-century savior without paying too much attention to the pesky progressive upstarts converging on her podium. She knows the so-called insurgents in the party despise her and deplore her longevity in office, which they think is corrupting (as are the tenures of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, age seventy-nine, and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, who’s in his late seventies as well). They also distrust the let’s-make-a-deal pragmatism of her three decades in the House.

The new Democratic progressives are an eclectic bunch of political neophytes, many of them women, African-Americans, and Latinas. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the twenty-eight-year-old Democratic Socialist, stunned the party in June by winning a primary against longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. But they appear united on one point: a new generation of Democrats is needed. They are tired of Pelosi’s temporizing over popular neosocialist programs like Medicare-for-all and free-college-for-all. (“It’s all on the table,” Pelosi has said more recently.) They are fed up with a party leadership that is forever making concessions on deficit reduction and that still gets much of its campaign funding from Wall Street and the health care industry.

Much of this anger is a holdover from the disastrous 2016 election, when, after vanquishing Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Hillary Clinton largely ignored his message and went straight for the center. Even so, Pelosi, who has led the Democrats for fifteen years, doesn’t seem too worried about her ability to control the potential blue wave. The indefatigable disciplinarian who lost not a single vote in her Democratic ranks on the two major GOP policy initiatives of Trump’s first year—repealing the Affordable Care Act and rewriting the tax code—thinks she can handle them.

But perhaps Pelosi should be careful what she wishes for. She and her allies in the Democratic establishment like to compare this midterm election to the one in 2006, which marked her first rise to the speakership and her successful stand against George W. Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security. But the scarier—and possibly more accurate—analogy for the Democrats is what happened to the Republicans in 2010. Like the GOP eight years ago, the Democrats are quite likely to win back the House thanks to a surge of anger against an unpopular first-term president. The darker side of that story, however, is that it ultimately led to the destruction of the GOP as we know it. Like the Republican establishment facing down the Tea Party after 2010, the Democrats may remain dangerously riven by ideological and generational conflict, as a powerful minority faction grows openly contemptuous of the party leadership, blocking it at every turn.

The progressives won’t dominate the caucus, but after a rollicking primary season it has become impossible to ignore them. Certainly Pelosi can no longer dismiss Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as merely “one district,” as she did in June—especially after Ayanna Pressley, running on the slogan “Change Can’t Wait,” defeated another well-entrenched incumbent, Michael Capuano, in September in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District.

According to the Brookings Institution’s Primaries Project, an unprecedented number of self-identified progressive candidates ran this year, though establishment Democrats did better, winning 139 primary races, compared to 101 for progressives. Many progressives have little hope of winning in November because they’re running in moderate or conservative districts, so the size of the coming progressive “subcaucus”—as Ocasio-Cortez wishfully called it—is not clear. But things have changed so radically that one big-spending Bernie-ite, Randy Bryce, may be able in increasingly red Wisconsin to take the seat of retiring Speaker Paul Ryan, whose chief concern was to cut the budget. Pelosi, if she regains the speakership, could easily become the John Boehner of her era, endlessly frustrated by her inability to unite the party in the face of fierce dissent from what might now be called the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez/Pressley wing. The new progressives may become a kind of Tea Party of the left, though instead of seeking to tear down the government, they will try to dramatically expand it—beyond where the establishment wants to go.

If Democrats win the House (and the Senate, though that’s still considered a long shot), the best-case scenario for the party may be that, as Republicans did after 2010, they fall back on their common hatred for the man in the White House.

The temptation to do this will be enormous: according to Gary Jacobson, a scholar at the University of California at San Diego who has tracked electoral data going back to the 1940s, a sitting president has never been as central an issue in a midterm election as Trump is in 2018. Despite an unemployment rate that is near mid-twentieth-century lows and other good economic news, public outrage at Trump’s offensive policies and statements—the “Muslim ban,” the separation of families seeking asylum, his ceaseless barrage of insults aimed at women, African-Americans, and other minorities—has kept him at 50 percent-plus disapproval ratings, according to most major polls. To become a party that stands for little else than ousting a hated president is an enticing but perilous path—especially if you fail.

The Republican Party establishment lost its base after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, and one can trace a direct line from that reckoning to the rise of the incendiary populist outsider who cost the party its soul (or, at the very least, its platform) and has since become the GOP’s sole owner and proprietor. Or witness those sixteen hapless Trump rivals in the 2016 GOP primaries, several of whom (like Romney) tried and failed to square the demands of the base with the evidence of their more reasonable voting records (the exception being Ted Cruz, who came in second to Trump). It wasn’t until August, after Trump was nominated, that Republicans really knew—for good or ill—who or what they were voting for.

Win or lose on November 6, Pelosi will have a pack of progressives at her back—and so will the eventual Democratic presidential nominee in 2020. For the Democrats this reckoning is ultimately about whether their leadership can finally acknowledge that since the Reagan era they’ve too often been a party of counter-punchers. They’ve sought merely to temper free-market ideology without offering an alternative vision of their own. Judging from her 2017 memoir, What Happened, and various postmortems, Hillary Clinton still doesn’t seem to fully grasp—or at least admit—that the seeds of the (largely white) working-class distress that sank her campaign were planted during her husband’s presidency, with its embrace of Wall Street deregulation and GOP-driven deficit-cutting that left a pittance for job retraining and adjustment programs.

Barack Obama did little better. Perhaps the greatest irony of his “Yes, we can” presidency was that income inequality actually increased during his terms. Obama’s administration failed to send a single major Wall Street, real estate, or insurance executive to jail despite their complicity in the biggest securities fraud in history. Under pressure from the right, Obama too became a proud deficit cutter. And he submitted to his financial gurus, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, when they argued that the moral hazard of bailing out millions of desperate underwater homeowners was far too risky, even as they shrugged off the moral hazard of bailing out big banks.

Is it any wonder that many Democrats no longer trusted their party when it fell into the hands of Hillary, the ultimate heir to this status quo? Or that Sanders, the wild-haired, Wall Street–bashing socialist who for most of his political career had spoken to empty rooms, suddenly became the darling of the base in 2016?

Win in November, and Democrats can probably paper over their differences for a while with a common effort to rid the country of an odious president. (Although Pelosi’s caution on impeachment—she forbade any mention of it during the primaries—could cost her more credibility with the base. And if she tries to cut any deal with Trump—for example, on infrastructure, which is one of her priorities—she’s certain to face further backlash.) Lose in November, and Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the rest will find themselves instantly engulfed by a renewed insurgency that will cry, with some justification, that the nearly $100 million Pelosi raised for Democratic candidates in the campaign—much of it from corporations and wealthy Americans—only points to her own corruption and cronyism. Or as Sanders’s top policy adviser, Warren Gunnels, told me, “You can’t reform Wall Street by taking its money.”

It is a bitter irony for Pelosi that she is being cast both as the embodiment of the hated middle by her own Democratic base and as the demon of the left by GOP campaigns. And she’s plainly miffed that in the “Year of the Woman”—with more women than ever running for office, and in which Pelosi finally appeared on the cover of Time—she has gotten so little credit from women. (Her overall approval ratings have hovered around 30 percent.) Just as Hillary Clinton tried to win votes by noting that her candidacy was “historic” because she was a woman, Pelosi insists that she needs to run for Speaker so that a woman “has a seat at the table” in Trump’s mostly male Washington. In the #MeToo era, that should carry considerable weight, especially after the rancorous Senate hearings in October on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and his confirmation despite allegations of sexual assault.

But it probably won’t be enough. True, Pelosi is often underestimated. As the first female Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011, she proved far more effective than most of the men who had preceded her. In August the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called her “the greatest speaker of modern times” for masterfully pushing through one major piece of legislation after another, among them the $840 billion stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank banking-reform bill, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Yet the progressives dismiss these achievements as just more incremental change. And Pelosi shares another unfortunate trait with Hillary: she tends to speak of progress in droning platitudes. Like Hillary, she knows how to govern, but not how to inspire voters.

Great Speakers of the House, of course, are not expected to inspire. They are expected to get things done. (Sam Rayburn, like Pelosi, preferred to work quietly behind the scenes.) But Pelosi doesn’t seem to fully realize the depth and rage of the Democratic revolution at hand: the base, yearning for youth, passion, gender equity, and, above all, somebody different, is fed up with status-quo Democrats. The base is disgusted by a centrist ideology that has long seemed out of date, judging from middle- and working-class anger over the brutally unequal society America has become under both Democratic and Republican administrations during the last four decades. And the base wants the party to start looking like America itself by bringing more minorities and women into power.

Electoral data suggest that the Democratic Party base is as divided and fired up as the GOP was eight years ago. According to an Axios analysis of Federal Election Commission data, “more Democratic congressional candidates have competed in the 2018 election cycle than either party attracted in any cycle since 1980,” and the last time either party come close to having as many congressional candidates was the Tea Party revolt of 2010.

“It’s very much like 2010,” Henry Olsen, a widely respected election analyst in Washington and author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (2017), told me. “And it definitely plays through to 2020 if for no other reason than that the Democratic insurgency will want to nominate one of its own. I don’t see how this stops. They want to run the party.” The new progressives also appear less willing to compromise than their predecessors. “I think it’s possible this is a different sort of left,” Olsen said—a rebellion that harks back to the bitter intraparty splits of 1968 and 1980. Or as Beto O’Rourke, the progressive who’s making a serious run at Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, told NPR this summer, “The only thing that you’re going to find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

Some in Pelosi’s camp dismiss the 2010 analogy altogether—and in terms that sound ominously like Hillary’s fateful “deplorables” comment from 2016. “What you had in 2010 was a bunch of freaks show up here,” said the senior Democratic House aide.

Not only were they obsessed with Obama, they were also obsessed with tearing down government. That’s not what our candidates are interested in. So I don’t see it as the same at all. Yes, I’m hoping for a flip that size. We’ll see. I’m hoping it’s more like 2006.

History, of course, doesn’t repeat itself precisely. After 2010, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa desperately sought to get Obama impeached, calling him “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times,” but in the end Issa uncovered no wrongdoing. Today, an investigatory juggernaut appears to be coming at Trump, and the Democrats have Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York on their side. Moreover, it now looks as if the Tea Party was less an insurgency of small-government idealists than it was a backlash against minorities and immigrants (which is why Trump so successfully absorbed it into his own movement).

Elaine Kamarck, a former senior adviser to Al Gore and the lead author of the Brookings study, acknowledged that the new strength of progressives flows out of the unresolved conflicts of the 2016 primary campaign. But Kamarck argues that the party has already adjusted by moving left. “Everybody is for being tough on Wall Street, and there’s a consensus that the Obama administration screwed up by not being tougher,” she told me. “We are all for comprehensive immigration reform. I’m a moderate myself, and I’m for Medicare-for-all.” Kamarck insists that progressives and moderates are much closer in outlook than the Tea Party and the GOP leadership were, and as soon as the newcomers face the actual challenge of governing, they will drop some of their more extreme positions, like disbanding Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But that line sounds similar to what the GOP leadership argued after 2010, when Boehner’s team found itself surprised, again and again, by the Tea Party’s willingness to shut down the government. And until the Democratic Party establishment truly reckons with its policy failures—that it abandoned the middle class to globalization, technological change, underwater-mortgage hell, and systemic fraud by Wall Street—it won’t appease its progressive wing.

The Democrats may not achieve real peace until they nominate a fiery populist such as Elizabeth Warren or even Sanders. Despite his advanced age (seventy-seven), Sanders may be the most popular Democrat in the country (though he’s still technically an independent), and he’s the chief instigator of the leftward lurch that Pelosi would like to pretend isn’t happening. Sanders and Warren are also the only national candidates who have put out any substantive new ideas recently: for example Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill and Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which would force major corporations to consider the interests of the communities they operate in and give workers the right to elect 40 percent of their boards.

People in the Democratic establishment like to dismiss the party’s differences as mostly generational, but to politicians of Ocasio-Cortez’s generation, who came of age witnessing capitalism’s biggest failure since the 1930s, “democratic socialism” carries none of the baggage that it did for people who grew up during the cold war and its triumphalist aftermath, when it was thought that “democratic capitalism” was going to save the world. Gunnels, Sanders’s policy adviser, noted that even the Koch brothers published a poll in July showing that large majorities of Americans supported government-funded college and a government-run health care system. “What I find most exhilarating is that issues [Sanders] was talking about two or three years ago were considered fringe, radical ideas, and now they are smack dab in the mainstream of America,” Gunnels told me.

More to the point, many of the insurgent Democrats believe that the only way to take on Trump is on his own terms: with bold, radical ideas that rebuke the current ideologies of both parties. That is still anathema to most mainstream Democrats, who believe that a Sanders or Warren nomination in 2020 would be a catastrophe. They point to the exorbitant costs of progressive programs (though up against a Republican Party that no longer seems to care about deficits, that may be less of an issue). Whoever the nominee is, if he or she loses to Trump, the new Democrats will be in as much disarray as the GOP was after 2012, particularly if an impeachment effort against the president fails.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are terrified. Bill Pascrell is an eleven-term congressman from Paterson, New Jersey, a district that, like Michael Capuano’s Massachusetts district, is a mixture of black, white, Hispanic, Arab, and other working-class ethnic groups (the city’s current mayor, André Sayegh, is of Lebanese and Syrian descent). Paterson is beset with high crime and corruption (the previous mayor is in prison), and its unemployment rate is more than twice the national average. Pascrell, an eighty-one-year-old native (and a former mayor himself), acknowledged he was lucky enough to face a weak primary challenger. Though he’s virtually assured to win in November in his deep-blue district, he says he’s taking no chances, and he’s spending more time in the city than usual. “No one is going to be coronated this election,” Pascrell told me in September.

Pascrell is an old friend and ally of Capuano’s, a fellow Italian-American, and he called his defeated colleague the morning after the Massachusetts primary election to offer condolences. I asked Pascrell how the reliably progressive Capuano, who had one of the most liberal voting records in Congress over ten terms, could lose so badly. Even Pressley, who is African-American, conceded in an August debate with Capuano that they would “vote the same way”; she said that the main difference between them was her “lived experience.”

One reason for the upset, Pascrell responded, is that voters just want something new, and in an America so viciously polarized by race, ethnicity, and gender, the new is often someone they can identify with along precisely those lines. “There’s something more important happening than your voting record,” Pascrell said.

It may be your age or your gender, or it could be ethnic. Some people where I come from say, “I’m not going to vote for anybody unless they’re Italian.” That’s good for me, but the challenge for all of us is: How do you take identity politics and make a stew out of it rather than isolating the potatoes from the meat? That’s not an easy thing to do anymore.

Pascrell noted that another old friend on the Hill, Joe Crowley, failed to do just that against Ocasio-Cortez in his Bronx-Queens district, which was once mostly white working-class but is now nearly 50 percent Hispanic.

Pascrell acknowledged that the coming progressive insurgency isn’t going away anytime soon. Thus he, like many establishment Democrats, has been careful not to endorse Pelosi as Speaker before the election. In July, responding to the large number of Democratic House members who had pledged not to vote for her, Pascrell organized a dinner along with Capuano and John Larson of Connecticut at which twenty representatives signed a letter urging that the Speaker vote be put off until December. Pelosi reluctantly agreed. Pascrell said, “I have the greatest respect for Nancy, but we’re not in any way, shape, or form ready for such a vote.” He added that he’s “not going to support her in the first vote in the caucus”—though he won’t say which alternative candidate he might back—but if there isn’t a persuasive contender he might support Pelosi in the open House vote in the second round. “If we’ve got to replace her with someone else, then my response is, ‘Tell me then, who is that?’”

Pelosi seems confident that she can overcome the resistance and, unlike Boehner and Ryan, keep her unruly party in line as she has done in the past. She is a more agile legislator than either Boehner or Ryan was. For most of her long career Pelosi has been cast by the right as a dangerous liberal from wackadoodle-lefty San Francisco. But in practice her progressivism has always been transactional, far more like the machine politics she learned from her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, who was the mayor of Baltimore and a congressman. Today’s Democratic insurgents won’t be as willing to accept the sorts of compromises Pelosi had to make to save Obamacare: throwing out single-payer as well as the public option, and even allowing language barring the allocation of federal funds to abortion.

Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, which supported Clinton in 2016, told me that whoever is nominated in 2020 will need to be not just ideologically correct, but the right sort of counterbully. “Donald Trump is the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the Democratic Party,” she said. “The issue is who can defeat him. Who can deal with negative campaigning, who can deal with negative assaults.”

Still, Tanden said, Democrats need to figure out how to upend Trump’s appeal. “My baseline issue is that bad answers will beat no answers,” she said, summing up the 2016 race. Clinton had few answers other than seven-point plans on her website, which most voters were unlikely to consult. Trump had loud and clear sound-bites for the working class—no matter how spurious. “I fundamentally believe the Democratic Party has not offered a real answer on how to create upward mobility for people who haven’t gone to college,” Tanden said. “We have to rethink the entire social contract for the twenty-first century.” Whether Pelosi becomes Speaker or not, that is the problem Democrats will be dealing with.

—October 10, 2018

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