Pelosi or Boehner may still have to walk the plank

November 2, 2010

One of the ironies of America politics is that the House of Representatives, designed to be the “mob” of political power, is the top-down, well-run branch of government, and the Senate is the every man for himself body. Unlike the Majority Leader of the Senate, the Speaker has immense sway over the House and can, when necessary, bend it to her will.

With that type of power, it’s not surprising that its leaders have to ward off intra-party threats to their power. In John Barry’s The Ambition and the Power, Barry compares overthrowing a Speaker or Minority Leader to Regicide. And, though unlikely, both sides of the aisle are talking about just such an event.

Pelosi may be forced to, or even want to step down if her party loses the House. Even if the Democrats win, numerous Blue Dogs have intimated in the campaign that they will not vote for her (Heath Schuler claimed that he will run against her if no one else does). Others have talked about electing a whole new House team for the Democrats.

On the Republican side, there has been minor chatter about a Tea Party revolt against Boehner and Eric Cantor. This is extremely unlikely to occur if the Republicans win the House – though it could be possible if they don’t pick up enough seats to take over.

Revolts against the party leaders are not that rare, though these revolts are almost always taking place on the right side of the aisle.

For all their perceived disunity, the Democrats have historically stood behind their leaders. Tom Foley might have lost his job in his 1994 reelection race, but they did not overthrow the team—the Majority Leader Dick Gephardt stepped right up to serve as Democratic Leader. Historically, there is a regimented rank that members can rise up through—Whip to Leader to Speaker if they are in the majority—and Democratic leaders have stepped up through these ranks. When John Murtha (with the considerable backing of Nancy Pelosi) tried to jump the line in 2006 by running for Majority Leader against Steny Hoyer, Murtha was crushed nearly two-to-one. Though there are exceptions (in 1976, a scandal meant the Majority Whip had no chance of moving up) the battle for the Democrats has traditionally been for the Whip role (which itself has only been elected since 1986). No Democratic speaker or leader (either majority or minority) has been removed in an intraparty coup (though Jim Wright resigned due to scandal).

On the other hand, the Republicans may espouse Ronald Reagan’s eleventh amendment, but behind the closed doors of the House, the knives are out. Newt Gingrich is the most famous casualty – forced out as Speaker after the party’s unexpected poor showing in 1998. But Boehner got his job in a coup, taking down acting Majority Leader (and then-Majority Whip) Roy Blunt in 2006, following the resignation of Tom DeLay. In the past, other Republican leaders have been overthrown, including former Speaker Joe Martin (then in the role of Minority Leader) by Charles Halleck, who was himself overthrown by Gerald Ford. Going back in history the House was totally changed by a coup against Republican all-powerful Speaker Joe Cannon, resulting in major reforms.

There is an obvious reason for the Republicans’ behavior. The Democrats have generally controlled the House – they had the success and the power. The Republican overthrows are usually done to punish failure, and hope that a new person has better ideas that can get them into the majority. If the Democrats do keep the House, Boehner and Cantor better watch out.

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