Never mind the dozens of Democratic House candidates pledging they will never vote for Nancy Pelosi. If Democrats retake the House, she’ll be the Speaker again.
“Everyone who said that is not going to win,” says a Democratic leadership aide, noting that the dissident voices are in red districts where decrying Pelosi is part of the package. “And if they win, we’ve probably got a wave, and that means we’ve got a big margin,” says the aide.
If Democrats fall short of the 23 seats needed for the majority, she and her lieutenants will be ousted. But the odds are that Pelosi is going to retake the gavel and then be a “transitional figure,” as she told the LA Times in October, adding that she would have stepped down from her party leadership role already if Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election, confident the country was in the right hands.
Donald Trump’s victory changed that. She wasn’t going to abandon the only seat a woman has ever had at the pinnacle of power in Congress, and now, says the leadership aide, “She is signaling generational change is coming, and that she will be the bridge to that change.”
There is no set date for her departure. That would make her a lame duck. There is a growing recognition among Democrats that Pelosi’s institutional knowledge will help the party avoid the trap of impeachment and focus on a legislative agenda. “You really need to have somebody who has strapped on their holster before and gone to war here and will not be winging it,” says John Lawrence, creator of the DOMEocracy blog. “You don’t unilaterally disarm.” Lawrence was Pelosi’s chief of staff when she was first elected Speaker and fought back against Democrats who wanted to use their new power to impeach President Bush.
Pelosi is not a fan of impeachment. Without bipartisan support, impeachment is a dead end unless there are 67 votes in the senate to convict. The contentious process could boost Trump’s support as it did President Clinton’s in 1998 when a Republican Senate failed to convict him.
“Why not just torture them with constant and brutal oversight, which they deserve,” says a Democrat in a think tank who didn’t want to be named. “Let Jerry Nadler (ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary committee) and Adam Schiff (ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee) go after them hammer and tong.”
That can be done without wading into impeachment. “We’ll be focusing on strategic, appropriate oversight having nothing to do with impeachment, and that’s where she’ll be urging people to focus their energies on, appropriate checks and balances,” says Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff to Pelosi.
The procedure to elect a Speaker favors Pelosi. The Democratic caucus will meet the week after Thanksgiving, and members cast a secret ballot. In 2016, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan got 63 votes in the caucus. All but 4 cast their vote for Pelosi on the House floor when confronted with a binary choice between Pelosi and Republican John Boehner.
Predicting the outcome of a caucus vote is inherently risky. After losing a leadership vote he expected to win based on the number of commitments he’d gotten from colleagues, the late Senator Mo Udall quipped that the difference between a caucus and a cactus is “with a cactus, the pricks are on the outside.”
The late Texas Democrat, Charlie Wilson, asked by a reporter on his way into a caucus vote, said, “I’m for all three, I just have to figure out which two I lied to.”
There is no obvious challenger to Pelosi, at least not yet. Ryan doesn’t seem inclined to wage a rematch. Pelosi will need 218 votes on the House floor, or a majority of those present and voting. Boehner was elected Speaker with 216 votes in 2016 with 24 Republicans voting against him, one voting present, and a couple members taking a walk and exiting the chamber. It was the most dissension in such a vote in a century, and foreshadowed the chasm between Boehner and the Tea Party Republicans that eventually drove him from office.
By stepping up and taking charge of the transition, Pelosi hopes to smooth the way for the next generation. Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, an up-and-comer in the heartland, has announced she is running for assistant Democratic leader, the fourth highest post in the leadership, positioning herself for the post-Pelosi era.
When Pelosi goes, her second and third in command, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, shouldn’t expect to stay. Pelosi’s got this in hand, and you can look at the people she’s taken a fancy to and how she’s positioned them to get a sense of who she is readying to move up.
There is New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who Pelosi tapped to head the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), and who will take a victory lap after the election if the Democrats do well. And there is New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Telegenic and dynamic, he represents the face of the future, and is seen as a potential next Speaker. He understands the challenge before his party in the age of Trump. Republicans talk in headlines, he likes to say, Democrats talk in fine print. It’s not the lack of a message that hurts Democrats, it’s too many messages.
Pelosi is a master legislator, there wouldn’t be an Affordable Care Act without her. She is super good at her job, tough as nails, and can easily hold her own with Trump and Mitch McConnell. But she is not the face of the future looking out at the country, and she recognizes that. Democrats want to turn the page, and Pelosi intends to help them do that, but first she intends to win.