Nancy Pelosi was formally elected House speaker today, regaining the gavel she wielded from 2009 until 2011, then lost in the 2010 elections. As Ron Brownstein notes, it is a significantly different House Democratic Caucus she will lead than the one that was sworn in ten years ago with Pelosi as its speaker:
Though slightly smaller, the Democratic caucus that’s assuming power is far more ideologically and geographically cohesive than the party’s previous majority 10 years ago. While the 2009 class included a large number of Democrats from blue-collar, culturally conservative, rural seats that were politically trending away from the party, the new majority revolves around white-collar and racially diverse urban and suburban districts that are trending toward them….
In 2009, 49 House Democrats represented seats that had voted for John McCain in 2008. Even after November’s gains, only 31 Democrats now hold seats that voted for Donald Trump. Moreover, Republican DNA was more deeply engrained in those earlier split-ticket seats: Of the 49 Democratic-held seats that voted for McCain, 47 also voted for George W. Bush in 2004. This time, only 14 Democrats represent districts that voted for both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012, according to calculations by Tom Bonier, the chief executive officer of the Democratic voter-targeting firm TargetSmart. Just 13 House Democrats are in seats that Trump won by five points or more, Bonier calculates.
The new House Democratic majority is significantly more rooted in suburban and urban America. The number of members from relatively rural districts, says Brownstein, dropped from 89 in 2010 to just 35 today. That doesn’t mean ironclad party unity, but does mean Democratic divisions will largely be limited to less emotional fiscal and economic issues rather than the culture-war hot buttons that often divided them in the past.
In this suburban-centered Democratic majority, the most important fissures probably will come over spending and the role of government. It’s likely that some of the new suburban members—several of whom have joined the centrist Blue Dog and New Democrat coalition groups—will resist expensive new initiatives to expand government’s reach (like single-payer health care) or new taxes. Those suburban members, holding districts that previously voted Republican, will inevitably be sensitive to the risk of alienating white-collar voters who dislike Trump and largely agree with Democrats on culture, but may still lean right on spending.
There’s really nothing about the new majority, however, that should keep Democrats from full-throated resistance to Trump and his radical agenda on immigration, the environment, and the rule of law. And above all, they do not have their predecessors’ burden of advancing a Democratic president’s controversial agenda.
The Democrats elected with Speaker Pelosi in 2008 did a lot of heavy lifting in enacting the Affordable Care Act and passing a cap-and-trade bill addressing climate change (which the Senate never took up). This (alongside economic distress and white conservative resentment of the first African-American president) made them ripe targets for Republicans in 2010.
If Democrats retake the White House in 2020, perhaps their House Caucus will have a similarly critical and politically perilous set of assignments (particularly if Democrats take back the Senate as well). For now they will probably be united just enough for the limited if dramatic role they will play in the next two years. They won’t be able to make laws, but they can break virtually all of Trump’s legislative designs, while utilizing the House’s investigatory powers to expose the corruption and possibly the criminality underlying his 2016 campaign and the strange administration it produced.