A few veteran Washington Democrats are having this recurring nightmare: First they capture control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 6. Then they celebrate. Then chaos ensues.
The odds are strongly in favor of a Democratic House triumph in the midterm elections. That’s why a dozen or so current members of the party are already angling for a leadership post in the next Congress. The current top Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California, has been an effective leader but seems also to have become a political albatross as more and more Democrats, under pressure from Republicans and their own left wing, pledge to vote against her as House speaker.
If her support continues to wane, the consequences for Democrats could be serious. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of leadership of a Democratic caucus filled with members who have never been in the majority or shown legislative prowess. The House is likely to be the only U.S. government body that the Democrats control, and will shape ferocious battles with President Donald Trump, maybe including impeachment, that will set the stage for the next presidential election.
The qualities that make a good congressional leader are often misunderstood. Successful modern speakers, from Sam Rayburn in the 1940s and 1950s, to Tip O’Neill, Pelosi and John Boehner a generation later, all possess keen political instincts and the discipline and subtlety of judgment to harness them. Bomb-throwers like Newt Gingrich, who was speaker from 1995-1999, and policy specialists like the current Speaker Paul Ryan have failed.
Other requisites for an effective speaker are the ability to count votes, which is harder than it looks; to craft an agenda that keeps cohesion and protects marginal incumbents; to be tough (the former Democratic House luminary and present Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once told me that the only person who could intimidate him was Pelosi) and, in these times, to be an effective public voice.
One largely irrelevant factor is ideology; others can do the vision thing.
Pelosi meets all these requirements except one: excelling in the public role. So would the No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland. But if the clamor is for a new, fresh face, it wouldn’t work to replace a 78-year-old woman with a 79-year-old man.
There may well be younger Democrats with the potential to rise to the challenge, but few, if any, have yet demonstrated the skills required.
The majority party in the House has almost unchecked power to control the legislative calendar. With Trump in the White House and the Senate in Republican hands, expectations for legislative accomplishments would be minimal. But frustrated liberals will demand actions that may not sit well with new Democrats from places like Kentucky or Texas, and with a slim majority they won’t be able to afford to lose anyone. Without smart and experienced leaders who can navigate that conflict, the Democrats are unlikely to stay in power for long.
The Trump administration offers so many targets for corruption investigations that there will be an insatiable appetite for an orgy of probes, and there need to be serious inquiries into demonstrated malfeasance. But the Democrats will make a mistake if they emulate the partisan witch hunts of Republicans like Devin Nunes, Trey Gowdy and Jim Jordan. A strong leadership would impose needed restraints.
If there’s a compelling case for impeachment, as seems likely, there are two models. In 1973, Democratic congressional leaders fended off a few left-wing members who demanded a rush to impeachment before the country was ready for it, paving the way for a bipartisan, historic effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation a year later. In 1998 by contrast, the absence of such measured consideration facilitated a travesty against President Bill Clinton that left him in office and actually boosted his popularity.
If Democrats jettison Pelosi in favor a new leaders, they’ll need to consider African-Americans like Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Cedric Richmond of Louisiana and Karen Bass of California, who was once speaker of the California Assembly, and Latinos like Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Several women are seen as potential leaders, especially Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Katherine Clark of Massachusetts. Another name frequently cited is that of Adam Schiff, a nine-term California lawmaker who skillfully countered Republican demagoguery on the Intelligence Committee in the present Congress.
These are quality members, but none are tested, and 20 percent of the Democrats who vote for a leader will be freshmen with no experience.
(Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.)