NOVEMBER 13, 2012
Since last week’s election, Rep. Nancy Pelosi has kept mum on whether she will pursue another two years as House minority leader, but on Sunday she hinted at an announcement to come Wednesday morning, when the Democratic Caucus meets. “When I see my caucus, I will discuss it with them in the beginning of this week rather than discuss it with rumor in Washington,” she said. But the rumor mill churns, with or without her.
If nothing else, Pelosi would surprise plenty of colleagues and staffers if she stepped down. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Tuesday morning that she would be “shocked” if Pelosi left party leadership. Minority whip Steny Hoyer is also under the impression that she’s staying. “My gut says she’s a fighter and will stay,” someone familiar with Pelosi’s thinking wrote to me in an email. As for rumors that she was set on leaving leadership, he wrote, “That seems odd to me.”
Say these people are right: What would a second round of Minority Leader Pelosi mean for Democrats?
Another Congress in the minority under Pelosi has clear limits for Democrats. Since a tepid caucus elected her its leader in 2010, shortly after the midterms that cost the party the House, she has spent her time focused on—what else?—regaining the majority. Few were surprised when Democrats failed to retake the House in 2012, though it was not for lack of money. This election cycle, she collected more than $85 million in donations for House Democrats. On the Hill, though, it was only during flaps like the Rep. Anthony Weiner scandal, when she called for his resignation, that she truly occupied the limelight. Occasionally, the Tea Party–moderate split among House Republicans afforded her caucus a little bit of leverage—as when Democratic votes became necessary to pass the budget agreement—but, as is any minority leader’s lot, Pelosi spent most of the past two years sidelined.
With the balance of power essentially unchanged—Democrats gained just a few House seats in last week's election—the next two years ought to look similar, albeit with Pelosi continuing to hold a tough line against Republicans. “That’s the question, then,” said the source close to her. “Whether she wants to do that again. … She’s very talented at getting the party marshaled, to really be unified, so when Republicans have to pass a bill, they need to get all of their people in line.” But while Boehner can’t always do that, there are plenty of times when Democratic solidarity can’t do much to hold back the tide of lousy bills originating with House Republicans. “How many times did they vote to repeal Obamacare?” he asked, by way of illustration. (Not that those votes were anything but symbolic.)
Others are more optimistic about Pelosi’s hand. When pushed for his prediction, a second person close to Pelosi limned a very bright picture of her previous term as leader. “Any major piece of legislation we passed this Congress, whether reaching a budget deal, or funding highways, it had to pass with Democrat and Republican votes. … Because at the end of the day, Boehner can’t pass a bill that will pass the Senate without our help.” Clearly, he said, the Tea Party–moderate split in the Republican caucus that has pervaded the lame-duck Congress is going to persist into the next one. Ergo, clout.
That’s a sunny outlook, especially considering that the House leader that the Senate Democrats and President Obama are chiefly negotiating with isn’t Pelosi, but Boehner. The minority that votes together is not a reliable source of legislative partnership for other Democrats, and even Pelosi opposed the debt deal that her caucus helped cement last summer. But there are other reasons for Democrats to hope that Pelosi, specifically, remains the one taking lumps for the caucus as its leader. “Like continuity,” said Burns Strider, a Democratic strategist and former advisor to Pelosi. (Not continuity in terms of ideology, he clarifies. “The caucus, you know, is what it is.”) “She has lead the House Democrats to a majority in the past, she understands how to lead it, she understands the diversity of the caucus, and she works to support and respect the diversity.” He paused. “And she’s really good at raising money.”
“Wouldn’t that be a relief?” asked a member of a top House Democrat’s staff, with all sincerity, when asked if he thought Pelosi would stay on as minority leader. Why so? “Well, since you’ve got me thinking about this again,” he said, indicating this was not something he appreciated, “her donor list in unmatched. I don’t know what our situation looks like without her.” The first source familiar with her thinking agreed. “I do think people should be worried about that. I mean, other Democrats would step up. But she’s got a huge donor list she’s good at tapping repeatedly.”
Again and again, people on the Hill reassured me that if Pelosi does run for reelection, the odds of a challenge from Hoyer—Pelosi’s erstwhile rival and her presumed successor—are slim. “He knows he wouldn’t win, and he doesn’t want the fight,” said the first source close to Pelosi. Rep. Jim Clyburn said as much on Election Day in an interview with MSNBC: “If she wants to run for reelection, I guarantee you she will get reelected.” (Thus, Hoyer’s been dubbed “the most patient man in politics.”)
But Pelosi’s choice also has implications for the next generation of Democratic leadership—Rep. Chris Van Hollen and other young Democrats who may not quite posses the stature or seniority to run for leadership just now, but would have two more years to rack up the necessary accomplishments if Pelosi chose to stay in place. Unless they relish a leadership fight in two years, their prospects would be frustrated if a Hoyer regime began tomorrow, according to the top Democratic staffer (who does not work for Van Hollen).
Those who know Pelosi don’t think such issues burden her. “It’s not legislative factors that will weigh in,” the first source close to her said. The second source said, “In terms of how she decides, she’ll talk about it with her family.” The modicum of leverage Boehner’s fractured caucus might provide—that matters less to her. Even when she retained leadership in 2010, the first source said, she did not do so expecting that divisions in the Republican caucus would give Democrats marginally more power. “It will be about, does she think two things: Would she be the best leader for the party? And does she really want to do it, with all the kinds of things you put up with constantly being on the road fundraising, and having members come into your office to complain to you on a regular basis?”
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This post originally misidentified Democratic strategist Burns Strider as Burns Slider. We regret the error.