When a party wins a majority in the House, its leader usually becomes speaker. But the process is not automatic. The party caucus nominates its candidate for speaker, who then goes up for election by the full House. Some Democrats are trying to stop the nomination and election of current party leader Nancy Pelosi. Their reasons are understandable, but not persuasive. It would be a mistake to reject her.
The Democrats who want to block Pelosi from the promised land of the speaker’s rostrum, point to her poll numbers. She has high unfavorable ratings with the general public — Real Clear Politics averages it at 28.5%. Her party critics fret that she could be a drag on Democratic candidates, in the way that then-House-Speaker Newt Gingrich was for Republicans in the mid-1990s. As Gingrich did for the Democrats, Pelosi provides the GOP with a handy foil. The mere mention of her name in a fundraising email prompts thousands of Republicans to click the “donate” link.
In part, her unpopularity stems from her issue positions. Conservatives think she’s too progressive. Some among her caucus think she’s not progressive enough. And although she is not nearly as gaffe-prone as Gingrich, she has sometimes given rhetorical gifts to her opponents, such as her famously cringeworthy comment on Obamacare: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
It is easy to appreciate why her poll numbers are cause for concern, but they are hardly disqualifying. After all, nearly everything about Congress is unpopular. The institution has a 21% approval rating, while Republicans, Democrats, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are all way underwater in the public opinion surveys. Which not only puts Pelosi’s rating into context, but also raises a pertinent question: How much more popular would another Democrat be?
It is easy to appreciate why her poll numbers are cause for concern, but they are hardly disqualifying.
In fact, a new Democratic speaker could easily get off to a bad start. Whoever holds the job is the public face of the Democratic Party, which isn’t easy. She or he will have to answer questions about a vast array of issues, and do so with knowledge and political skill. Any speaker’s public comments are subject to close inspection by journalists and political opponents, and very few lawmakers are ready for that level of scrutiny. That’s especially true for those who have spent years in the minority, where media attention is scarce. Gingrich wrote of his own rough launch in the speakership: “If you are seldom covered by the press … you have a lot of leeway to make mistakes. But when you are in people’s living rooms every evening, your mistakes are magnified.”
If Pelosi’s rivals think that they are immune from such mistakes, they should think again. Any stray awkward phrase, especially if taken out of context, can become a weapon in the hands of GOP opposition researchers. I used to be one of those oppo guys, so you can trust me on that.
Despite her occasional stumbles, the Democrats have plenty of evidence that Pelosi is up to the task of leadership. Notice that she just led her party to massive gains in the midterm elections.
Thwarted ambition is another source of House Democratic grumbling about Pelosi. She and the two other senior party leaders are in their late 70s and they’ve been in power for a long time. Many younger members have been eager to move up in the ranks, but found no room at the top. Some left the Hill. For example, Xavier Becerra, a 12-term congressman from Los Angeles, gave up the chair of the House Democratic Caucus to become California attorney general.
Majority status will provide a remedy. Next year, dozens of Democrats will have a chance to chair a committee or subcommittee. For the first time in eight long years, they will be able to shape the legislative agenda and hold hearings that gain attention for their favorite causes — and for themselves. If Pelosi becomes speaker, she should help them along. In recent years, there has been a flow of staff resources away from committees and toward the leadership offices. By reversing the flow, she could go a long way toward building goodwill and developing talent in the ranks.
Once that talent has matured, others may be ready for the speakership, and Pelosi can step aside. In the meantime, she is the Democrat best equipped to handle the institution’s main job, the crafting of laws.
The Affordable Care Act is the prime example. Pelosi shepherded it to passage when many thought that it was dead. Whoever takes the gavel in January will need that kind of skill. The presidency and the Senate are in the hands of the opposite party. Negotiating with Senate Majority Leader McConnell will be a particularly daunting challenge. He may be unpopular, but he is formidable: An inexperienced newcomer would be at risk of being eaten alive.
House Democrats have to ask themselves whether they want to vent their anxieties and frustrations, and pick a fight with one another, or pick a leader who can actually run things and get on with it. If it’s the latter, they have only one choice, and her name is Nancy Pelosi.
John J. Pitney Jr. was a House Republican staffer and opposition researcher at the Republican National Committee. He is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.