Pelosi floats above Democrats' civil warNovember 11, 2020
Shortly before Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team faced a gauntlet of angry Democrats disappointed by the election, they held a private call to strategize.
The message, Pelosi and others agreed, was clear: If they didn't rein in the far left, their fragile majority would be doomed in the next election.
“Do we want to win, do we want to govern, or do we want to be internet celebrities?” said House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), echoing a common sentiment on the call last week, according to multiple Democrats familiar with the discussions.
“I think it’s a useful conversation for us to have because the socialism message wasn’t helpful,” Jeffries added.
Notably, no one was bracing for a serious challenge to Pelosi or her longtime deputies, who have led the caucus as a trio for 14 years. Instead, concerns over flawed messaging and intra-party strife have been the dominant takeaways for most of the caucus.
It’s a departure from Democrats’ usual hand wringing over leadership after Election Day.
For the last decade, Pelosi has had the same post-election routine: swiftly quashing whispers of an insurrection as a handful of members look to end her long tenure as leader. But this year, Pelosi is poised to enter another — and possibly final term — as speaker, with her position as safe as ever despite losing at least six net seats after predicting they’d expand their majority.
Instead of pinning the blame on Pelosi, House Democrats have turned on each other in a resumption of the ideological war gripping the party. The sniping has grown pointed and personal, with centrists and liberals blasting each other by name both privately and in the press. Both sides have been privately discussing how they will exert their will even further in the upcoming Congress.
Meanwhile Pelosi’s only potential challenger, Jeffries, made clear he has no interest in the job this term. Often mentioned as a possible Pelosi heir, Jeffries took himself out of the running as he declared another bid for caucus chair on Monday. The move essentially guarantees the top tier of leadership — Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn — a glidepath to another term atop the House.
But this time, the task of governing will be much harder. Pelosi will preside over one of the slimmest House majorities in decades, a fractured group that is still processing who’s to blame and how to move forward along with a Joe Biden administration and likely Republican Senate.
Moderate Democrats said there was no way to outrun the GOP campaign ads accusing them of supporting far-left ideas like defunding the police and banning fracking. Prominent progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) quickly hit back, saying its centrists’ fault for not doing enough to shore up their own districts, including spending more on digital ads.
“I’m sure everybody feels strongly about what they’re saying and what they’re doing,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “[But] the Democratic Caucus is not the real battlefield. And the sooner we recognize that the better off we’ll be.”
Much of the Democratic caucus remains shellshocked — if not outright furious — at the election results in the House. Moderate Democrats, many of whom barely survived their own reelection battles and watched more than half a dozen colleagues fall, are livid at their leadership for failing to see the blow coming.
Despite the grumbling, swing district Democrats have no plans to put up a challenger to Pelosi or any other leader, according to several centrist lawmakers and aides.
Instead, those Democrats — including some who tried to block Pelosi’s last bid for speaker — say they’re focused on teeing up their next leader while ensuring that Democrats hone a far stronger message to protect their majority in 2022.
“The time has come. The existing leaders have done a good job in some respects. In others they’ve become, unfortunately, a little bit toxic,” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a senior Blue Dog, said in an interview.
“No one is going to run against the top three, we have no other candidates. And frankly I think the other candidates would be unprepared,” Schrader added. “But what we do need to do is have a clearer way to train and transition the next generation.”
Several moderate Democrats said they were disappointed with the party’s leadership across the board, not only at the election results but at what they saw as a misleading reaction from the top. The Blue Dog Coalition alone is on track to lose a half-dozen or more members from the election, with several races still uncalled.
“Leadership tried to really paint a very rosy picture of what happened on Tuesday and that undermines the faith that rank and file have in how we are going to hold our majority in the midterms if you can’t even get leadership to acknowledge that something’s wrong, that something happened,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a leader of the Blue Dogs, said in an interview.
Much of the backlash, both publicly and privately, has been directed at Democratic Congressional Chair Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who has become something of a punching bag after she announced this week she would not seek reelection to the role. Moderates have argued that Bustos sought to craft too big of a battleground map — wasting millions of dollars in Texas in particular — and failed to see the enthusiasm on the GOP side. Progressives, meanwhile, have blasted DCCC as out of touch, given its reliance on mostly white senior staff and consultants.
Bustos continued to defend the DCCC’s strategy during a call with members on Tuesday, saying the huge battlefield actually forced Republicans to go on the defensive to protect seats they normally wouldn’t worry about, diluting the amount of GOP attacks on the most vulnerable Democrats.
Bustos also took what was seen as a direct shot at Ocasio-Cortez’s critiques, saying “Democratic candidates outspent Republicans on Facebook by anywhere from a 2-to-1 margin to as much as a 10-to-1 margin” in tough districts. Other Democrats also said that Ocasio-Cortez’s claims that some Democrats spent $0 on digital ads the week before the election were wrong.
While Bustos has been the main target of internal ire, Pelosi’s name does not go unmentioned among the grumbling. After all, the California Democrat remains the party’s most prolific fundraiser as well as its agenda-setter and lead messenger.
Still, Democrats say Pelosi is unlikely to need to fend off the kind of rebellion she faced in both 2016, when she faced long-shot candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, and in 2018, when she was forced to agree to term limits in a deal with Democratic rebels. (Two years later, Pelosi has declined to answer questions about whether she’s still committed to that timeline, which would cap her speakership after two more years.)
There is some talk among moderates about trying to extract more concessions from Pelosi this time around. But the drama is largely centered at the rank-and-file level instead, with the dueling factions of centrists and progressives becoming increasingly vocal about why they believe the other side cost them Democratic seats.
Progressives are emboldened after adding to their ranks. Justice Democrats, the muscle behind Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 victory, backed two more successful primary challengers, and several other liberal candidates prevailed in open blue seats.
Moderates, meanwhile, say they are done playing nice after feeling like they tiptoed around the liberals in the caucus this Congress, only to see many of their members get wiped out after being tagged by the GOP with the rallying cries of the far left.
And for some of the caucus’ more senior members, there is an exasperation that the party was not able to successfully ward off the GOP’s rhetorical attacks.
“We’ve got to be clear about that we’re not for defunding the police and allow that lie to continue to be out there,” said Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.). “We’re not for defunding the police and we’re not socialists. The language has to be clear.”
In some ways, the Democratic caucus is experiencing the kind of intraparty drama that had been expected after their “big tent” party expanded in 2018. But over the last four years, Democrats have papered over their divisions with a common enemy: Donald Trump.
“Because of the threat from Trump, what he represented... we’ve had to suppress a lot of feelings,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “So now that it’s safe to come back to the surface, we have to avoid getting the bends as we come up for air.”
Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.