Sanchez’ Sanctimonious Misstep

Of all the puzzling, inopportune and injurious statements made in Washington recently – and there has been no shortage of them – few surpass comments by Rep. Linda Sanchez as she mused about the need for new leadership in the House of Representatives.

Sanchez, currently serving her 8th term in the House from a reliably Democratic district in California, made news on October 5th by telling a reporter, “I do think it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders” in the House. And she wasn’t talking about Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Sanchez’ remark contained a backhanded compliment as well. “Our leadership does a tremendous job,” she noted, “but we do have this real breadth and depth of talent within our caucus” that is restless and wants to begin the transition to the “new generation of leaders.” Not surprisingly, she added, “I want to be a part of that transition, I want to see that happen.” There’s a surprise.

Let’s unpack this contretemps.

Yes, the current Democratic leadership – Leader Nancy Pelosi, Whip Steny Hoyer, Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn – has been in positions for an unusually long time (by virtue, it should be noted, of their repeated overwhelming election by the Democratic Caucus). Yes, there are many younger and talented Democrats who, given the opportunity, could (and will) rise in the House leadership. Pelosi has even periodically mused about the end of her House service — for example, had Hillary Clinton been elected president. Earlier this year, the earnest if undistinguished Ohio representative Tim Ryan launched a challenge to Pelosi’s re-election as leader on similar “time for a change” grounds cited by Sanchez this week. Two-thirds of the Caucus disagreed with him.

Prior to her remarks, Sanchez was not considered to be among the co-conspirators periodically plotting a putsch against Pelosi or the other leaders. Indeed, as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus and a senior member of Hoyer’s Whip organization, she seemed an unlikely candidate to publicly chastise the party’s leaders.

Moreover, as a Californian, a woman and someone of Latino heritage, she would seem an improbable critic of Pelosi in particular.   Over the years, Pelosi has showered her with choice appointments, including as the highest-ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee and a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Unlike Tim Ryan or an earlier Pelosi critic, former Rep. Heath Shuler, Sanchez was not an outsider grumbling about the leadership, but a participant in and benefactor of their deliberations.

There is nothing new about more junior members voicing dissatisfaction with leaders who have an obligation to make the House function and a responsibility to work with the diverse Democratic Caucus. Sometimes dissatisfaction with leaders is well-placed: in the 1970s, liberals rebelled against chairmen who sided with the minority Republicans more frequently than with fellow Caucus members who gave them their gavels. But there are important distinctions between those rebellions and the challenges to Pelosi and today’s other leaders. Democrats currently serve in the minority and face a major battle to resume the majority. Pelosi plays a crucial role in the effort to regain the majority lost in 2010. Efforts to divide the Caucus against itself can inflict far greater damage in the battle to win majority control. Moreover, today’s leaders are in agreement on policy with the vast bulk of the Caucus and united against Republican initiatives, unlike the Conservative Coalition chairs of the 1970s who voted more often with the minority party than with those who elected them to leadership positions.

The truly stunning aspect of Sanchez’ apostasy lies in her timing. Pelosi is engaged (or will be) in high-level talks with the Trump White House and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer to craft an extension of the DACA program that protects about 800,000 undocumented Americans who, in Sanchez own floor statement of September 27th, are “holding their breath” because of the imminent threat of deportation. That collaboration comes in the wake of Trump’s remarkable concession to Pelosi and Schumer over the debt ceiling and continuing budget resolution. There are even rumors of potential negotiations on health care.

Between now and the end of the year, a number of other crucial programs, including funding for premium assistance for low-income participants under the Affordable Care Act and the extension of the Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), await negotiations involving the congressional leadership and an erratic, unpredictable White House. My guess is that tens of thousands of people in Rep. Sanchez’ district desperately need Mrs. Pelosi is the strongest possible position to battle for their health and immigration rights, but their congresswoman’s intemperate remarks did little to strengthen Pelosi’s hand in the upcoming battles with Trump and House Republicans.

Moreover, the next two months are crucial in the timetable of dozens of Democrats who are considering risky races for Republican-held House seats, not to mention seeking the millions of dollars the party will need for those races to be sufficiently competitive. Pelosi, a masterful candidate recruiter and fundraiser, will be crucial to both such efforts. Absent success with those candidates and that funding, hopes of Democrats’ capitalizing on the dysfunction of House Republicans or Trump will dissipate.

If Linda Sanchez has a strategic game plan whereby undermining the strength of the Democratic Leader (and thereby millions of low income, Latino, Californians and other Americans, including many of her own constituents) makes sense, she certainly failed to explain it clearly to the rest of the political community. Without such an explanation, her statements raising questions about division in the House Democratic ranks invariably complicate every political and legislative objective the bulk of Democrats are hoping to achieve in 2018.

No one seems to know what prompted Sanchez’ sanctimonious statement, but there is little doubt it was ill timed and ill-advised. Changing House leadership in the middle of a Congress, at the height of fundraising pressure, in the midst of potential resolution of high priority Democratic legislative objectives, makes no sense, and therefore talking about it serves no interest other than to potentially weaken the leaders and the goals to which the Caucus aspires.

Why would Sanchez do that? Obvious reasons include self-promotion or a publicly unknown personal slight. Whatever it is, Sanchez’ attack on someone who is crucially positioned to aid the Democratic constituency, and who has steadily promoted the advancement of Sanchez’ own career in the House, reflects poorly on any aspirations she might have to lead the party.