The possibility of an impending midterm defeat and the stalling of the Democratic legislative agenda has caused some to wonder how long House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will remain at the helm of the House Democratic caucus. Although she often divides opinion politically, there is little doubt that Pelosi has been a powerhouse legislator and fundraiser first as Minority Whip (2001-2003) and then as Minority Leader (2003-2007 & 2011-2019) before becoming Speaker (2007-2011 & 2019-present). Pelosi was instrumental in defeating President George W. Bush’s social security reforms in 2005, before becoming Speaker. In her first stint as presiding officer, she oversaw the passage of the Federal government’s stimulus and bailout packages after the 2008 financial crash, while providing Democratic leadership against Bush’s policies, particularly on the Iraq War. Additionally, Pelosi is estimated to have raised over $1 billion for her party since ascending to the leadership in 2003.
Her abilities as a legislator have given her a stranglehold on the party, even as they were swept from power by a Republican wave in 2010. Talented pretenders to Pelosi’s position such as Reps. Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel, Xavier Becerra, Ben Ray Lujan , Cedric Richmond, and (after the next election) Cheri Bustos have left the House, while Pelosi and her two lieutenants, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, fill the top three leadership slots into their 80s. There is, however, finally a sense that this could be Pelosi’s swan song year on Capitol Hill, given her age, the likelihood of Democrats filling the minority for at least two years, and younger, more ideologically diverse caucus which she oversees now, compared to the one that she inherited early in the century.
But who could possibly fill the void which Pelosi may soon create? In spite of the immense transformations since Pelosi assumed the leadership, her ability to control her caucus, negotiate, and legislate has never waned. With Democrats approaching a conflict about which views will guide their party’s thinking and which people will be its face, Pelosi’s successor has an uphill battle to establish themselves and to succeed, whether in the majority or minority. Will the blue side of the aisle opt to retain the experience of Pelosi’s top team, or finally allow the new generation an opportunity to climb the hitherto unassailable ladder?
The Old Guard
Hoyer and Clyburn could not be blamed for believing that they are long overdue their turn. Having served as Pelosi’s gentlemen in waiting since 2003 and 2007, respectively. Hoyer himself ran against Pelosi for the whip position in 2001, while Clyburn challenged Hoyer for the number two spot after Democrats lost the House in 2011, causing Pelosi to personally intervene and create a new position for Clyburn.
Due to this and the age of the two Congressman, we are not likely to see a joint ticket promising continuity as we saw with Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise on the Republican side after Paul Ryan’s retirement in 2018. On the contrary, Hoyer’s long wait to ascend and Clyburn’s opportunity to become the first African-American House Speaker is simply too big a personal incentive for two men in their 80s.
Of the two, Clyburn is likely to be better positioned for two reasons; firstly, that the modern Democratic Party takes descriptive representation very seriously, and secondly, that the Democrats’s likely relegation to the minority would see more Hoyer-backing moderates lose their seats than Clyburn-friendly progressives. Additionally, Clyburn may be able to count on the unity and notorious whipping operation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to underpin his campaign, while Hoyer does not yet have a similar infrastructure.
I do, however, expect both to run in the event of Pelosi’s departure given how long the pair have patiently waited. If they do, it will likely signal the end of the Pelosi era, given that a split in the already vulnerable establishment could be easily defeated by a candidate of the unified new generation. The chances of a compromise establishment candidate like Bennie Thompson, Rosa DeLauro, or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz are also nil due to the octogenarian pair’s sense of “last chance saloon” politics. Thus, the establishment will field one or both of the leaders, perhaps at their peril.
Impatient New Clood
In looking for candidates for such a position we need look no further than the leadership’s next trio below the Speaker, Leader, and Whip. House Democratic Caucus Chair, Hakeem Jeffries is both ambitious and impressive given his rise to the number five spot only six years after entering the House.
In doing so, Jeffries established himself as the favourite of the CBC behind Clyburn by beating long-time progressive member Barbara Lee for the position. Jeffries is decidedly moderate in tone (if not substance) and is well respected for his strategic abilities across the Caucus. As an African-American, Jeffries also adds a benefit terms of the aforementioned Democratic tendency towards descriptive milestones, and would also be a more popular choice among minority voters. The critical question for Jeffries, however, is whether he would be inclined to run against an icon and mentor in Clyburn if it became clear that he had a chance to become leader.
While slightly less recognized as a powerhouse political figure, Katherine Clark, does in fact sit one rung above Jeffries in the leadership as Assistant Speaker. Having also entered Congress in 2013, courtesy of a special election to replace Senate-bound Ed Markey, Clark’s rise to the precipice of the Pelosi three is as impressive as Jeffries’s. Clark is, however, far more progressive in tone than Jeffries, and represents an overwhelmingly white district in the Boston suburbs, which doesn’t tick many electoral boxes. That said, Clark has proven herself an effective operator and impressive fundraiser so should not be ruled out.
Clark and Jeffries would be foolish not to come to an arrangement to endorse the other, particularly with the prospect of division within the establishment and on the progressive flank. Despite this, Clark has seniority on Jeffries, and no prospect of an agonizing decision if Jim Clyburn enters the race. It might turn out to be in her interests to announce early and dare Jeffries not to back her.
Additionally, Pete Aguilar could provide an alternative with his leadership experience and success with Latino voters, a demographic group about whom Democrats are beginning to worry. While Aguilar lacks the profile of Jeffries or Clark, Intelligence Committee Chair, Adam Schiff or Ruben Gallego present more notable alternative candidates for the mainstream new generation.
The impending House Democratic debate over leadership will not just be fought on the issues of age, change, and experience but on ideological grounds. Democrats have already begun to enter a serious battle with their caucus’s left flank, led visibly by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad”. If the caucus doesn’t back either Clyburn or Clark, it would be surprising if the progressives did not field a candidate, at least with the prospect of shifting the caucus’s Overton window to the left or to secure a position in the new leadership. Jayapal herself is an established member who draws less ire from the party than the younger members, while younger members Andre Carson and Andy Kim could inject a fresh perspective without “the squad’s” baggage.
A Progressive Caucus campaign could invite a response from House moderates, particularly if Hoyer is not a candidate. While obvious prospective candidate, Stephanie Murphy is leaving the House, Stanford Bishop, Jim Costa, or Jared Golden could prove impressive backstops to represent the interests of moderates in a chaotic election.
If there’s one thing that the last few years have proven, it’s that House Democrats are unpredictable as ever. The vacuum left by Pelosi will trigger a conflict informed by under promoted senior members and impressive and ambitious new leaders against the backdrop of ideological angst. While I doubt the result will surprise anybody, a progressive revolution, or a moderate coup cannot be ruled out, particularly if the election result is outside the margin of expectation. From today’s perspective, I would put just 50 cents on the promotion of Clark, Jeffries, and Aguilar (in some order) to the top three positions due to the likely conflict between Hoyer and Clyburn cementing suspicion amongst House Democrats that it’s time to move on from the Pelosi-era. All we know is that a defeated House Democratic Caucus will launch a mighty battle, one which may have wide ranging implications for the party’s future.