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…


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