opinion

Future Shock

The Democrats Need a New Generation of Stars

One way to give the party a jolt of energy? Let a new generation step into positions of leadership in the House by 2020.

Linda Sanchez, Democratic congresswoman of Orange County, California, finally said out loud something House Democrats have been muttering about for a while: The time has come for Nancy Pelosi and the other Democratic leaders in the House to start thinking about stepping aside.

“Our leadership does a tremendous job, but we do have this real breadth and depth of talent within our caucus and I do think it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders,” Sanchez said, probably meaning at least in part herself (worth noting: Pelosi did put her on Ways and Means and give her a House leadership post).

Look, Nancy Pelosi has been a great legislative leader. Not good. Great. She really knows what she’s doing; has that LBJ gene. The cat-herding she did to get the Affordable Care Act passed was truly impressive. She’s also really good, people have told me, at letting members who need to vote “no” for local reasons vote “no.” That’s important, too.

But she’s 77. And the Democrats’ number two, Steny Hoyer, is 78. And their number three, Jim Clyburn, is 77. That just doesn’t project a future orientation. Paul Ryan is 47. Kevin McCarthy, his deputy, is 52.

Age isn’t everything, and I’m not saying that she or the other two can’t do their jobs. But it’s a legitimate thing. There comes a moment when it’s just time to give some other people a chance. Tip O’Neill hung it up when he was 74. And now you’ve got Dianne Feinstein announcing at 84 that she’s going to seek re-election, and two men, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who are looking to run for president in 2020 who will be 79 and 77, respectively, on Election Day 2020. And they’re applying for eight-year jobs, not two years, like a House member.

So what I think Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn should do is hold a joint press conference and say: We, the three of us, are going to serve one more term in leadership, and that’s it. We’re going to leave before getting past 80, no matter what. If the voters give us the House majority in 2018, great, we’ll all serve one more term as a kind of victory lap, and we’ll investigate this administration and subpoena the britches off them and all the rest.

And even if the voters don’t give us a majority, that two-year period still gives the younger, ambitious people in the party time to jockey for support, and it’ll give our caucus time to see who has it in him or her to be the next leader. And then we’re outta here. So if, as we hope, there’s going to be a new Democratic president sworn in come 2021, there will be new House leadership coming in at the same time.

I know, I know. They’ll never do it. But think how interesting that would be. Three politicians who aren’t known to adore one another (especially Pelosi and Hoyer) acting together, and doing something selfless! Giving up power, like Cincinnatus and George Washington. It would give Democrats a jolt of energy, something to buzz about, and give all their candidates a fresh future to imagine and describe to voters.

And what should that future be? I’m not naming any names here. I don’t have a leadership slate or anything like that. But I do have some thoughts on all this, and they won’t all be pleasing to my fellow liberals.

This is a fact, and I mean it’s an immutable, undeniable fact, which I’ve written about before. Democrats can’t get to 218 (a House majority) with liberals alone. Republicans can get to 218 with conservatives alone. Right now there are 240 Republicans in the House, only about a dozen of whom you’d call moderate, and even that’s stretching it. There are 194 Democrats, most but not all of whom you’d call liberal. And that’s about the outer limit on liberalism in House districts. So to be a majority, Democrats need moderates, and quite a lot of them.

That means they need to make efforts to appeal to voters in the kinds of districts they won back in 2006 and 2008 but have lost overwhelmingly in the Obama/Tea Party era. Look at these two maps. This one is a map of congressional control after the 2008 election, when Democrats held 257 seats. And this one is a map of the same thing after the 2016 elections, when Democrats were reduced to 192.

Look how much bluer the first map is. Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. North Carolina, Georgia, Florida. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. Real estate yielded everywhere.

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Who was winning those seats back in 2006 and 2008? It wasn’t coastal liberals, friends. It was the kind of candidate who could win in a place that was somewhat more conservative than your typical metropolitan/suburban blue district. And it’s those people who gave the Democrats their majority, who made Nancy Pelosi speaker, and who passed us (with some agita, but still, they did it) Obamacare. There were, as I recall, 53 Democrats in the Blue Dog coalition in 2009. There are 18 now.

The only way for the Democratic Party to grow is with more Blue Dogs. And so as they think about their post-Pelosi/Hoyer/Clyburn future, Democrats ought to think about this. Obviously, any Democratic leadership team has to be racially diverse, and has to include at least one woman. It seems to me especially important that the new triumvirate include a Latino, which would be a first.

The next leader should not, however, be from New York or Boston or Los Angeles or San Francisco. Chicago might be a little different, the city of broad shoulders and all that jazz. But they should find someone who isn’t from a deep-blue district. Look at Paul Ryan. He’s from a district that Cook Political Report rates as R+5; it leans Republican, but only leans. Pelosi’s district is D+37. Having a leader from a district like that reinforces the media trope, fair or not, that the party represents only certain cosmopolitan enclaves. The Democrats’ next leader should be from a district that’s a little closer to a 5 than a 37.

Trump’s unpopularity opens the door for a Democratic comeback. I think a bold move like this could kick that door wide open and could actually augment Pelosi’s legacy. She helped pass monumentally historic legislation, and now she can pass the torch at a time when the party needs someone with the self-awareness to lead the way.