Why Democrats Stuck With Nancy Pelosi Despite Their Election Drubbing
Policy + Politics

Why Democrats Stuck With Nancy Pelosi Despite Their Election Drubbing

REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Dozens of House Democrats despondent over the shellacking their party took in the Nov. 8 elections were more than ready to dump their veteran leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and take a chance on a new direction. 

But Pelosi, the 76-year-old former House Speaker who was first elected to Congress in 1987, prevailed again when the time came on Wednesday morning to choose a minority leader, garnering 134 votes or 68 percent of the Democratic caucus. 

Pelosi clearly lost ground from the last time she received a serious challenge, six years ago. Sixty-three Democrats cast their votes for Rep. Tim Ryan, a backbencher from Youngstown, Ohio. And Pelosi had to scramble to placate younger members with leadership rules changes that likely will pave the way for newer faces in the coming years. 

Related: Meet the Guy Who Wants to Topple House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi 

Ryan, 43, and his supporters argued that despite Pelosi’s years of experience and prowess as a fundraiser and legislative strategist, the Democratic leadership was long overdue for a change. Clinton and the Democrats had been caught flatfooted during the campaign by focusing too much on Trump’s glaring character flaws while failing to develop a compelling economic message to galvanized dispirited middle class and blue-collar workers. His championing of the depressed Rust Belt economy and sharp criticism of free trade agreements seemed to better reflect the political zeitgeist since President-elect Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. 

Yet the beleaguered House Democrats weren’t willing to take a flyer on Ryan — a likable politician with virtually no leadership experience — when their party was in crisis and so much of the Democratic legacy was on the line. For the first time in eight years, the Republicans will hold a firm grip on the White House and both chambers of Congress beginning in January. They are vowing to dismantle or dramatically alter Obamacare and social programs dating back to the Great Society of the mid-1960s. And they cheered Pelosi’s win. “This year voters went to the polls and made a bold statement for change in Washington but House Democrats just doubled down on the status quo,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement. “The fact that Tim Ryan was able to peel off over 60 Democrats in his campaign for Minority Leader reveals Democrats have no unified vision for our country and are content to once again entrust leadership to someone who has led their party into total irrelevance in the House.”

Related: Ryan Declares GOP Has a ‘Mandate’ to Enact Sweeping Changes 

Pelosi’s leadership may be more important than ever for Democrats now. Without Obama in office to block Republican salvos, as he did last January in vetoing an earlier attempt to repeal Obamacare, the Democrats’ last line of defense will be the shrewdness and boldness of their party leaders in trying to at least slow the GOP momentum. That means that much will ride on the performances of Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who just succeeded Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada as Democratic minority leader, and on Pelosi. 

The San Francisco Democrat is peerless as a combatant for liberal causes and has shown an iron will during countless battles over the years over spending, health issues, abortion rights, foreign policy, defense, taxes and even the debt ceiling.  She was instrumental in passing Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. And when things looked bleakest for the 2010 Affordable Care Act, Pelosi assured a despondent Obama, “We can make this work.” 

Now Pelosi and Schumer have little choice but to play an aggressive defense. Lacking the numbers in the House or Senate to prevail on most key disputes, the two will have to be careful in picking their battles and knowing when to retreat or cut a deal. Pelosi and Schumer already have signaled a willingness to negotiate with Trump and the Republicans on a $1 trillion package of infrastructure construction. There also may be common ground on a paid family leave program and closing some glaring tax loopholes. 

But Pelosi and Schumer have also signaled they are prepared for all-out warfare with Trump if he and the Republicans try to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, or if the president-elect is serious about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or rounding up and deporting millions of illegal immigrants. 

Related: Dueling Trump and GOP Tax Plans Would both Cause Much Larger Deficits 

That helped to explain why a slew of senior Democrats, including fellow Californian Adam Schiff and Joaquin Castro of Texas, put her name in nomination. Schiff probably put it best in urging his colleagues to rally round Pelosi and her top lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who is 77 years old, and 76-year-old James Clyburn of South Carolina.

“Everything we care about [is] at risk, Schiff said, according to Politico. “We need the very best to lead us.”

Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who is retiring at the end of the year, added that “It’s not just the politics, it’s not just that she wins elections, it’s not just the fundraising, but that she gets things done for our caucus and the American people.”

Related - Trump Proposes $1 Trillion for Infrastructure Without Raising Taxes 

“We are in a minority,” Israel told MSNBC yesterday. “And yet as a minority party, every time these Republicans try and send us off a fiscal cliff or shut down the government, she produces the votes necessary to move the country forward. And we are going to rely on her to do that now more than ever, because you’ve got an administration, a speaker of the House and a secretary of Health and Human Services who are obsessed with privatizing Medicare.”