Pelosi’s Moment of Truth

When all is said and done, Democrats are likely to wind up with a net gain of 38 seats in the House of Representatives. That would give them a total of 233 seats to the Republicans’ 202. When you combine that with a net gain of seven state houses and the the fact that the damage in the Senate will likely be limited to two seats, this was a pretty successful midterm election.

But all is not a bed of roses in the land of the Dems. With less than two months to go before the next Congress is sworn in, we still don’t know who the new Speaker of the House will be. That’s because there’s a growing insurgency among some of the freshman class and a few incumbents to oust Nancy Pelosi from her leadership perch.

As of now, 16 Democrats have signed a letter declaring they will not vote for her as Speaker. With Democrats holding only a 15 seat majority, that leaves Pelosi one shy of the requisite 218 yes votes she would need to get an absolute majority in the chamber. Further complicating matters is the fact that while opposition to the current minority leader may be fierce and determined, there doesn’t appear to be a viable alternative who can muster the necessary votes either. And that leaves the party up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that the Democratic Party needs new blood. All three of its leaders – Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn – are in their 70s, and the majority of the new chairs belong to men. If ever there was a party that needs a housecleaning it’s the Democrats. And with the majority of newbies considerably younger and more diverse, it’s imperative that they have a place at the table.

Of course the paradox is that for all her negatives, few if any Democrats know how to run a caucus like Pelosi. She was almost singlehandedly responsible for getting the Affordable Care Act through the House, successfully putting down a rebellion by progressives who demanded a single-payer healthcare bill. Given that the top issue Democrats ran on this year was healthcare, it would be ironic indeed if the woman who gave them that issue weren’t around to see it through.

And then there’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question. If not Pelosi, then who? It’s one thing to publicly declare you won’t support someone, it’s quite another to declare who you will. And so far, no one has come forward who can fill Pelosi’s shoes. Tim Ryan challenged her two years ago and fell short of gaining enough votes. Marcia Fudge, another Ohio Democrat, was seen as a strong candidate, but rumor has it that Pelosi showed her her scheduler and that was all it took for Fudge to have a change of heart.

If I were a betting man, I’d say Pelosi survives, but just barely. One way would be for a number of incumbent members to vote present rather than no. That would reduce the absolute majority she needs to secure her second stint as Speaker. Another way would be for her to guarantee a few plumb appointments to committees for several “reluctant” yes votes. About four or five should be sufficient to get her across the finish line. Even among idealists, money talks and bullshit walks.

Then there’s always the very real possibility that Pelosi could call everyone’s bluff and demand a straight up or down vote. That would ostensibly box the naysayers in. Without a candidate capable of getting 218 votes, many of them would likely cry uncle and vote yes rather than let the political equivalent of a food fight break out and consume the entire caucus. And with so much at stake, to have that happen would be like giving Republicans the Christmas gift of a lifetime.

One thing’s for certain: whoever does become the next Speaker will have their work cut out for them. Already there is a civil war brewing between progressives and centrists for the heart and soul of the party. The fact is that most of the freshman class were elected in suburban districts that are anything but liberal. They are not beholden to any ideology, much less one which is not embraced by a majority of their constituents. Contrary to my earlier comments regarding her, it seems Pelosi might be the only Democrat who can successfully navigate through this minefield.

One thing I will say in her defense. There’s a reason Republicans made her an issue throughout the midterms. They were deadly afraid of what she would do if she ever got a hold of the gavel again. Neither John Boehner nor Paul Ryan were terribly effective Speakers when it came to keeping their conference together; neither was able to control the factions that divided it. By comparison, Pelosi was practically Wonder Woman. And that, more than anything else, might be the best reason of all to give her another crack at it.

Look, am I a fan of Nancy Pelosi? No. Would I like to see someone younger than her take the reigns? Yes. The problem is, there’s nobody out there who either wants the job or is up for the challenge. And until that happens, the pragmatist in me says if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

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