Ever since Nancy Pelosi ascended to a position of leadership among House Democrats, her standing has been in a state of near-constant peril. Last year, Pelosi’s critics within the caucus had granted her a reprieve, promising to delay their next challenge to her leadership until after the midterm elections, with the implicit threat that she would be deposed if Democrats failed to win a majority. “She’s been authorized to provide leadership, good or bad, for the next two years,” said Representative Steve Lynch of Massachusetts, who challenged her after the 2016 failure, last summer. “I think in fairness we owe her that. We owe her two years.”
Now Pelosi’s critics have renewed their threat to depose her even if Democrats do win the midterms. Axios reports, “Some well-wired House Democrats predict she will be forced aside after the election and replaced by a younger, less divisive Dem.”
The challenge to Pelosi has one good reason behind it, and many bad ones. The good reason is that Republicans have made her their most effective campaign message. Democrats running in red seats have faced ceaseless ads tying them to the dreaded San Francisco Liberal, and victorious candidate Conor Lamb had to disavow her leadership in order to squeak through. That’s not a replicable pattern: A handful of the party’s most vulnerable candidates might be able to promise not to support her speakership, but Democrats cannot control the chamber without candidates in 218 districts who will vote for Pelosi.
Would a different Democratic leader prove less of a liability? Probably for a while, yes. Republicans have spent years building up Pelosi as a hate figure, and a newer and less familiar Democratic leader would take longer for Republicans to promote as a target of fear and loathing. It’s also possible that a Democrat who was either from a less famously progressive locale than San Francisco, or not female, would be less threatening to some socially conservative voters. (The latter point is the most fraught: Do Democrats really want to let irrational fear of powerful women dictate their choice of leaders?) It is true, though, that deposing Pelosi would have at least a temporary messaging benefit in some tough districts this fall.
But the cost of throwing Pelosi over the side would be high. She has been an extraordinarily effective caucus leader. When Democrats last held the majority, she shepherded into law the most aggressive spate of liberal reforms since the Great Society: an $800 billion fiscal stimulus, health-care reform, Dodd-Frank. The House passed a cap and trade law at a time when bipartisan support for the idea still had some life in the Senate.
It might seem tempting to dismiss these feats as automatic, the baseline expectation for what a leader can do when her party commands a majority. It is not. During many of these fights, Democrats were wandering off in multiple directions, as Democrats are wont to do. In particular, after Republican Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts in January 2010, many if not most Democrats collapsed into despair. Pelosi kept her nerve, talked her party off the ledge, and passed a bill that was signed into law.
If you want a picture of what the ineffective marshaling of a majority looks like, remember the repeated instances in which John Boehner tried to bring bills to the floor only to suffer humiliating defeats. Having a leader who can figure out which bills can get 218 votes is not something to take for granted.
Pelosi’s Democratic critics include both the left and right flanks of the party (which is itself a sign that she occupies its center). Attacks on her leadership try to simultaneously attack her as too moderate and too liberal, in an attempt to cobble together both irreconcilable strands. In part to cover up the incoherence of the criticism, the complaint is often expressed in vague generational terms. She is too old, and ought to give way to the new generation. (Whether this new generation will be more moderate or more liberal is a question that can be filled in as one desires.)
Yet there is zero sign Pelosi’s age has impeded her work. She has not lost her persuasive talents: Pelosi effectively rallied the party to unanimously oppose the Trump tax cuts. If some Democrats had supported the measure, Republicans could have touted its bipartisan nature, which would in turn help reduce its unpopularity. Instead the health care and tax cuts have been a millstone around Republican necks. (Republicans initially tried attacking Conor Lamb for opposing the tax cuts, but abandoned that message, a telling concession in a heavily Republican district.) Last month, Pelosi delivered an eight-hour speech defending the Dreamers, standing the entire time, in heels, without a break, a feat of stamina I could not have matched at any point in my life. It may have been a stunt to display her vitality, but it was a convincing one.
Replacing Pelosi as leader would create the ephemeral benefit of forcing Republicans to rotate in a new cast of villains to star in their attack ads — MS-13? hippies? antifa? — until they could build up the name-ID for her successor. It would bring the significant downside of firing an elected official who is extremely good at her extremely important job.