Old Guard

What’s Behind Nancy Pelosi’s Big Post-Election Announcement

Eleanor Clift on what the Democratic leader is likely to say at her 10 a.m. announcement Wednesday.

With the speaker’s gavel once more out of reach, what will Nancy Pelosi do? Will she retire from Congress and clear the way for her daughter Christine to run? Not likely, says a leadership aide. Will she step down as minority leader and clear the way for a successor? Or will she stay in her post, determined to shepherd her caucus through the difficult budget cuts that lay ahead?

Inquiring minds want to know, and Pelosi promises an answer in an announcement scheduled for 10 o’clock Wednesday morning. As of this writing, Pelosi was keeping her counsel, confiding in her family and closest confidants, and in assessing what she is likely to do, an aide reminds that the minority leader has said repeatedly that she will serve the two-year term in Congress that the voters in her San Francisco district just elected her to do.

If Pelosi follows through on that pledge, those who think they know her best speculate that she could announce her retirement at the end of the next Congress, likely keeping her leadership post but opening the door to new leadership. The ramifications of that scenario, if true, would reverberate through the caucus, affecting her longtime rival and understudy, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, and also potentially South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, currently serving as the Democratic whip.

“She’s trying to turn Steny into the Prince Charles of American politics,” says a Democratic strategist. “Right now if Nancy pulled out, no question Steny becomes leader. Two years from now, that’s not the case.” Pelosi and Hoyer have had a contentious relationship for years, decades even, and many observers would not put it beyond Pelosi to squelch what is likely Hoyer’s last chance to grab the top spot. “It’s the ultimate screw-you scenario at the end of a long and unpleasant relationship,” says another Democrat.

In Pelosi’s defense, if this is how it plays out, it is about more than a rivalry. From her perspective, Hoyer is the wrong man for the moment. With dramatic changes in the caucus, and in the country, and with a majority of minorities and women in the Democratic caucus for the first time, Hoyer, a white man in his early 70s, does not reflect the pace of change.

Hoyer appears to understand that. Over the weekend, he and Clyburn, who is African-American, were calling fellow Democrats to say that if Pelosi announces she is leaving, they would be running as a team. Either way, Wednesday or two years from Wednesday, any promotion Hoyer gets would likely be short-lived, and Clyburn would be positioned as the first black speaker should the Democrats regain the majority. “That’s historic, and what Nancy would want,” says a Democratic strategist.

Whatever she decides, it’s Pelosi’s decision. There are no recriminations over the failure to win back the House. “She did almost 700 fundraisers, for God’s sake,” says a member of the caucus. “She raised an overwhelming amount of money.” Democrats won the popular vote for the House, but Republicans held the majority because of redistricting. Nobody is blaming Pelosi.

But there is unhappiness among Democrats about the entrenched and aging leadership. Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn are all over 70. “There’s grumbling about the entire Old Guard,” says one of the newer members. “People do a lot of complaining, but when the mikes are turned on, everyone falls in line. Nobody feels they can challenge the Old Guard.”

These longtime leaders are admired, they’re popular, and each in their own way has more than paid their dues. With bipartisanship once again making a comeback in Washington in the immediate aftermath of the election, some Democrats would like to see Hoyer ascend to the top spot and replace Pelosi as minority leader. “He could get more things done with the Republicans,” says a Democratic strategist.

But Pelosi has given her heart and soul to advancing progressive ideas and values, and whether she stays or goes, her hand will be seen in shaping the succession struggle that is underway.