Why Pelosi will be the next minority leader
By Joshua Spivak
The opinions expressed are his own.
Even after the Democrats crushing defeat on Election Day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that she wants to keep leading the Democrats as the minority leader. Despite some grumbling and complaints, the odds are very good that she has the job locked up. It may seem unusual, but Pelosi’s behavior is normal for the House. Moreover, the history and current membership of the House may make her reelection a certainty.
In the 20th century, the Democrats lost control of the House four times. The last time, in 1994, Speaker Tom Foley lost his reelection campaign. However, Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, the number two ranked Democrat, followed the traditional path up the ladder, and was immediately chosen as minority leader. When they lost the House in 1952 and 1946 Speaker Sam Rayburn took over as the minority leader, a pattern was started by Speaker Champ Clark when the Democrats were swept out in 1916.
This is not surprising. Democrats had control of the House for nearly two-thirds of the 20th century. The party maintained strong internal control of the leadership ranks — members rose up from whip to leader to speaker. Every Democratic speaker previously served as either majority or minority leader.
The party’s members have rejected attempts to break their line of succession. 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 — but the battle for Democrats has traditionally been for the whip role, which itself has only been elected since 1986.
The Democrats have deposed lower ranking elected leaders like leader of Democratic Caucus and committee chairs, but no Democratic speaker or leader, either majority or minority, has been overthrown, though Jim Wright did resigned due to scandal.
Whereas the Republicans take a markedly different approach to the House Leadership. Though they may espouse Ronald Reagan’s 11th amendment, behind the closed doors of the House, the knives are out. Newt Gingrich is the most famous casualty when he was forced out as speaker after the party’s unexpected poor showing in 1998. His original successor, Appropriations Chair Robert Livingston, lasted for what seems to be a second as presumptive Speaker before a scandal caused him to resign. The Republicans then chose their chief deputy whip, Denny Hastert, passing over both Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
Boehner is an example of a successful coup. He took 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 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.
Pelosi’s biggest problem is not that the members blame her for the loss of the House or for the poor showing at the polls. News reports seem to believe that the ire is being directed at President Obama. However, she became the face of the House Democratic brand, and the Republicans effectively used her as a negative image, in many ways more than President Obama, for the campaign. Party members may want to switch simply to have a change of focus for voters.
However, she has already won the loyalty of many party members. The party members most likely to seek a change in leadership were the conservative and moderates. These “Blue Dogs” were the ones who took the brunt of the Republican wave — they are not a fraction of the Democratic caucus. The surviving members are Pelosi’s liberal base.
For Pelosi, though, she actually may have an easier race than if the Democrats had just barely held onto the House. Several members publicly claimed that they would not vote for her for speaker. But for Minority Leader the only vote that counts is getting the absolute majority in the Democratic Caucus. Those few disgruntled members can’t hold the position up.
After the drubbing on Tuesday, people might have thought that Nancy Pelosi would be finished. But her decision to run for minority leader shows that she’s not done with the House. If history is any judge, she’s probably right.
Joshua Spivak, a PR executive and attorney, is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.