Why Pelosi Won, and What It Means

by John Lawrence

Earlier this week, a reporter asked House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi if she would achieve the three-quarters vote she had predicted to retain her leadership position. “Two-thirds,” Pelosi corrected the reporter. On Wednesday morning, in a secret vote among 197 House Democrats, Pelosi won an eighth term as the House’s top Democrat, with 68% of the vote, as predicted.

Pelosi’s precise vote-counting skills explain a good deal about why her colleagues extended her tenure, already the second longest in House history after that of legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn. During her one term as Democratic Whip and throughout seven terms as Speaker or Leader, Pelosi has been a meticulous vote counter, losing only one key vote — the 2008 vote on TARP when a teary John Boehner was unable to persuade his quota of Republicans to support the Bush-Pelosi initiative. (TARP quickly passed when Pelosi produced additional Democratic votes).

Long after she had vacated the Whip’s office to others, Pelosi ran her own vote-counting operation. Late into the night before key floor votes, Pelosi and her lieutenants and staff would count their pledges, and then painstakingly recount them, before seeking out the wavering dissidents who still needed persuading. It was that kind of diligence and persistence that paid off on Wednesday; Pelosi knows her members, and she is assiduous in listening to their views and addressing their needs.

But vote-counting skill alone did not secure Pelosi’s victory. First and foremost, leadership decisions are driven not by the symbolic value or national profile of a particular candidate, but by the answer to the time-honored question: “What can you do for me?” Compared to Pelosi’s massive fundraising record, her years of strategically assigning minority and vulnerable Members to key committee positions, and her skills at maximizing the party’s leverage even in the minority, a substantial majority of Democratic Members chose her continued leadership not because they liked or feared Pelosi, but because she was good for them. Her challenger, Tim Ryan of Ohio, offered none of that experience, which is why it was a foregone conclusion that in the era of Trump and Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Members concerned with their own political futures would not turn to an unproven novice.

Still, the Caucus protests sent a powerful message to find ways to elevate the participation of more junior Members – a majority of the House Caucus – into the leadership and decision-making roles. Pelosi has long sponsored weekly meetings between the leadership and these newcomers, but she proposed additional innovations to address the serious stasis among the aging committee leaders that has obstructed many Democrats from achieving even subcommittee leadership well into their careers. Some of her proposals met with immediate resistance, especially among the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that is among the most vigilant defenders of a seniority system that ensures that minority legislators secure and retain their committee positions. (Ironically, the 1974 revolt against seniority targeted aging southern conservatives who, like many of today’s CBC members, enjoyed long tenures and leadership positions thanks to their largely uncontested seats.)

One important signal emanating from Wednesday’s vote is that the next team of Democratic leaders will certainly come from a new generation. Pelosi, along with Whip Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, the Assistant Leader (a position Pelosi created), will all be in their late seventies by 2018. The prospects for either Hoyer or Clyburn advancing to the Leader’s position, long a goal of the former, are negligible. Ryan’s challenge demonstrated that a substantial portion of the Caucus is prepared to look outside the traditional “leadership ladder,” a sentiment likely to grow and impact Ranking Members as well if some do not choose to step aside voluntarily, as did Ways and Means’ 85-year old Sander Levin this week.

It is unclear as of right now who will possess the multiplicity of talents displayed by Pelosi when the time comes to replace her, although one potential prospect, termed-out Caucus Chair Xavier Becerra of California, just decided to accept an appointment as that state’s Attorney General rather than seek to replace Levin or await Pelosi’s retirement. His departure, like that of Chris Van Hollen (Pelosi’s all-but-presumed successor who opted for a Senate seat) leaves open the question of who can credibly step up whenever the Pelosi era ends.