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The Truth Behind the Toothless Rebellion Against Nancy Pelosi

Conservative Democrats once threw their weight around in the House. Now they're reduced to howling from the sidelines.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Monday, 16 conservative Democrats took their shot at Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to easily win the speakership when the 116th Congress convenes in January. It’s an odd, futile rebellion, one that underscores the incoherence of a lot of Pelosi’s critics, particularly in right-leaning districts.

One problem, among many: An alternative to Pelosi is never named. Ohio Democrat Marcia Fudge is considering a challenge, but she didn’t even sign the letter. The letter itself fails to mention specific criticisms of Pelosi’s past performance, or of the aims she has set for the next Congress. It does not say what the conservative antagonists, who are decidedly to the right of their fellow Democrats and more likely to vote with President Donald Trump, think a Democratic-controlled House should try to accomplish.

Instead, the letter falls back on a familiar gripe: that Democrats need younger leaders and that means replacing the 78-year-old Pelosi. “Our majority came on the backs of candidates who said that they would support new leadership because voters in hard-won districts, and across the country, want to see real change in Washington,” the letter reads. “We promised to change the status quo, and we intend to deliver on that promise.“

It’s true that Democrats should develop the next generation of leaders. Pelosi herself has acknowledged the need for “new blood,” saying, however believably, that she would have stepped aside if Hillary Clinton had won the White House in 2016. But the protest against Pelosi is more about the San Francisco liberal’s unpopularity, particularly in the purple rural and suburban districts represented by letter-signers like Ohio’s Tim Ryan (who challenged Pelosi for the role of minority leader two years ago) and incoming freshman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. And it ultimately says less about the strength of Pelosi’s position than the weakness of conservative Democrats as we head into the 2020 presidential cycle.

The last time Pelosi was speaker, from 2007 to 2011, the conservative Blue Dog coalition was enormously influential. Today, even with gains in suburban districts, it’s a shadow of its former self. Pelosi’s previous tenure was defined, in part, by the split between liberals like herself and the Blue Dogs. In the 116th Congress, it will be defined by the tensions between Pelosi and her left flank.

During the last Democratic wave election, in 2006, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee claimed that it was focused on finding candidates who could win, regardless of ideology. “This is not a theoretical exercise,” Chris Van Hollen, a Pelosi lieutenant who has since moved to the Senate, said at the time. “The goal is to win this thing. In dealing with candidates, we don’t have an ideological purity test.” In practice, however, that meant that conservative-leaning Democrats were pushed in Republican-leaning districts. The move paid off, with Democrats winning control of Congress in a rout. By the time Barack Obama entered office in 2009, there were 54 Blue Dogs in the House.

That meant that they were in a position of power during the brief period in which President Obama commanded majorities in the Senate and the House. They used their clout to successfully scale back the ambitions of both Obama’s stimulus package and Obamacare. The former ended up being smaller than what was required to fully ameliorate the effects of the Great Recession, while the latter was deprived of a public option, among other flaws.

Ironically, the Blue Dogs’ hedging didn’t help them at all. In the disastrous 2010 midterms, they were practically wiped out—less than two dozen members kept their seats. The trouble with representing purple and red districts, it turns out, is that they are very vulnerable in wave elections.

The 16 rebels who are pushing for a new speaker belong to a mix of right-leaning Democratic caucuses, including the Blue Dogs, and overall are significantly more conservative than the rest of their conference. But while moderate and conservative Democrats could bend the party to their will in 2009 and 2010, they don’t have as much leverage now.

While there is significant overlap with the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, which saw significant gains during the midterms, that group is more aligned with Pelosi’s big-tent approach. The New Democrat Coalition has yet to endorse Pelosi, and are demanding “rules changes to ensure lawmakers have time to read bills and that operations in the House are more transparent,” according to The Washington Post. They also want the speaker to shield them from “politically perilous votes”—presumably on progressive policy issues.

If the group of rebels want to make a serious run at Pelosi, they’ll have to recruit her critics on the left. The Progressive Caucus will be the largest Democratic faction in next year’s Congress. Pelosi has seemingly recognized this, wooing its members and incoming stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Last week, the Progressive Caucus endorsed Pelosi’s run to reclaim the speakership—in exchange for more power.

According to Politico, “Pelosi agreed … to give the Progressive Caucus proportional representation on what lawmakers call the ‘A committees’: the Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, Financial Services and Intelligence committees.” Members of the Progressive Caucus are also expected to take key positions in leadership as well.

Tellingly, Pelosi has thus far welcomed the challenge from her conference’s right flank. She flexed when asked about a potential challenge from Fudge last week, telling her would-be rivals: “Come on in, the water’s warm.” It is not only that Pelosi is unafraid of her conservative critics. She also rightly sees an early challenge as the best way to solidify her support and to gain the 218 votes she needs to become speaker—and there’s nothing like the threat of a more conservative leader to shore up her left flank.

The more interesting question is how Pelosi will balance these factions once elected speaker. While there are far fewer conservative Democrats today than there were eight years ago, the influx of Democrats representing suburban, purple districts means that there will be plenty of jumpy freshmen concerned about attack ads tying them to Pelosi two years down the line. On the other hand, progressives feel empowered after a strong election. Already, hackles are being raised about reports that Pelosi was considering a pledge to not raise taxes on the bottom 80 percent—a promise that would make a number of progressive policy proposals virtually impossible to enact.

Significant splits in the conference could emerge, especially if the House considers infrastructure, criminal justice reform, family leave, or other legislation where there is potential to work with Republicans. But the overarching dynamic is that Democrats in the House will have to contend with a Republican-controlled Senate and White House, which will bottle up much of their agenda. To pass anything of significance, Democrats will have to regain the presidency first, and at that point Pelosi really may have have retired.

Either way, as the 2020 presidential primary unfolds, the Democrats will have a new standard bearer. That person may come from the party’s left wing, or from Pelosi’s liberal wing. But it almost certainly won’t come from the faction currently challenging Pelosi’s leadership.