Assuming Nancy Pelosi keeps her earlier pledge to step down as Democratic House leader after the 2022 midterms, there will be a jockeying for party-leadership positions that already has aficionados of the “Democrats in Disarray” meme excited. The Washington Post is positively salivating:
House Democrats are bracing for a turnover in leadership next year that would amount to a seismic event for the party — one that could empower a new, diverse generation of members while also exacerbating tensions over the direction of the caucus and the policies it should pursue.
To be fair, it isn’t just the usual progressives-versus-moderates battle fueling this “seismic event”; there’s also generational change. Word is that Pelosi may be heading to the exits with company from her other octogenarian leadership colleagues, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn, and even if they don’t retire from the leadership or from Congress, they could be bypassed by a Democratic Caucus wanting some fresh blood. The front-runner to succeed Pelosi is the fourth-leading member of the leadership, Brooklyn’s Hakeem Jeffries, a mere lad, at the age of 51, who would represent both continuity and change.
As the change of command grows nigh, we will hear a lot from the chattering classes about Jeffries’s ties to House Democratic moderates and how he can mend fences with progressives, including his Gotham frenemy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the bigger issue for House Democrats in and out of leadership is the context in which they will serve after the midterms, when many of today’s much-discussed factional conflicts could change or even fade. Let’s look at a few likely upcoming scenarios:
Life in the minority
The enormous pressure Pelosi dealt with every day last year as she discharged the responsibility of shepherding Joe Biden’s agenda through the House may not be a problem for her 2023 successor. Odds are very high (per both history and such leading indicators as Biden’s job-approval ratings) that the party controlling the White House will lose House seats in the midterms. This will likely flip control of the House given Democrats’ very narrow margin of control along with other discouraging factors like retirements and redistricting. If so, then Jeffries (assuming he is the Pelosi successor) won’t have to worry about how to wield the Speaker’s gavel, and Democratic divisions will probably fade in significance (just as the House Freedom Caucus lost its leverage among Republicans when they lost the chamber in 2018, becoming simply a noisy auxiliary to the MAGA movement).
Given the gulf between the two parties and the lack of interest Republicans have in bipartisanship these days, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep moderates and progressives in harness in opposing Republican-sponsored legislation. They will lose the headaches associated with the need to coordinate and reconcile legislation with Senate Democrats. It really won’t matter much if Republicans enjoy a veto via control of the House (and the GOP could, of course, control the upper chamber as well if 2022 trends go south).
Life without a trifecta
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Democrats lose the House in 2022 but regain it in 2024 along with a Biden reelection victory, an entirely plausible scenario. Trouble is, the 2024 Senate landscape is bad for the Donkey Party, so even if Democrats reflip the House and maintain the presidency, they could easily fall short of what they’d need to reconstruct a trifecta. If so, House Democrats will be in the position of having to regularly advance the president’s legislative initiatives with little or no hope that they will actually become law.
This sort of legislating without consequences has its own challenges but shouldn’t strain party unity all that much and is certainly easier than preconferencing every bill with the other chamber.
Life without an iron hand
Pelosi is regarded as one of recent history’s most effective Speakers and congressional party leaders in part because of her exceptional legislative and vote-counting skills. But her effectiveness is also owed a lot to the respect and — yes — fear she was able to rely on in dealing with fractious members of her caucus. This is a form of political capital it takes time to build, and no Pelosi successor will have it from the get-go. Indeed, if Jeffries or any rival for the House leadership tries to play badass prematurely, it could backfire. There won’t be an iron hand at the controls for a good while.
Life with a broad party coalition
One thing that won’t soon change for House Democratic leaders is the simple fact that their party remains a broad coalition as compared to the more ideologically rigid GOP (reflecting a more ideologically rigid activist base in the electorate). In historic terms, of course, the House Democratic Caucus is far more united than it has been, well, maybe ever (certainly more than it was when a significant number of self-described conservatives were around). But there are still factions and individual members willing to take advantage of whatever leverage they can muster without much fear of primary challenges or grassroots fury.
Congressional Democrats in both chambers also experience more tension over the influence of moneyed interests than do Republicans on average. At some point, Democrats may need to unilaterally implement long-stalled initiatives aimed at reducing the power of lobbyists and the shadowy forces they represent, who have all along constituted a faction as powerful as moderates or progressives.
But in any event, the distinctive problems and opportunities that House Democrats are experiencing in the final two years of the Pelosi era will simply not be extended beyond 2022. However new or old, and left or center, the party’s future leadership turns out to be, the outlook for House Democrats will change significantly from cycle to cycle. It would be nice if House-watchers also adjust accordingly.