Pelosi will be a hard act to follow

- By Matthew Yglesias Bloomberg Opinion

Nancy Pelosi steps down as the most accomplish­ed congressio­nal leader of her era, and probably the most successful House speaker of all time in terms of legislativ­e impact. But if there was a flaw in her tenure, it’s the one revealed as she announced her plans to step aside: House Democrats will now be led by people with little meaningful experience or national profile.

This is in contrast to the recent musical chairs among House Republican­s. When John Boehner took over as speaker in

2011, he’d already been the No. 2 person in the Republican leadership. When he stepped aside in 2015, he was replaced by Paul Ryan, the main architect of Boehner-era GOP policy priorities and a former vice presidenti­al candidate. When Ryan, in turn, stepped down in 2019, he was replaced as GOP leader by Kevin McCarthy, who’d been the No. 2 guy under both Ryan and Boehner.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, though seen for years as the heir apparent, is the fourth-ranking House Democrat — not No. 2 — and has never chaired a committee.

The problem isn’t that he’s the wrong choice to be Pelosi’s successor. He’s the obvious choice, even the correct one. But it is a problem for House Democrats that the correct choice is someone who hasn’t played a major role in legislativ­e strategy, policy developmen­t, fundraisin­g or public communicat­ion.

The problem is that the best option available is a bit under experience­d because the people higher up in the leadership hierarchy are way too old. If Pelosi had stepped down after the 2010 midterms, House Majority Whip James Clyburn could conceivabl­y have stepped up at age 70 and become the first Black speaker after the 2018 midterms. Then he, rather than Pelosi, would be stepping down today in favor of a younger leader who’d served in the No. 2 or No. 3 spot.

But because Pelosi wanted to stay on after the thumping of 2010 — and again after the disappoint­ment of 2012, and again after the further losses of 2014 — Clyburn and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer hung around, too.

During this extended period of gerontocra­cy, multiple heirs apparent left the House for greener pastures. Rahm Emanuel became White House chief of staff and then mayor of Chicago. Chris Van Hollen became a senator. Xavier Becerra became attorney general of California and then secretary of Health and Human Services.

Meanwhile, Pelosi knew that her continued leadership was controvers­ial — that many people thought a new leader without baggage would be electorall­y advantageo­us. This encouraged her to engage in what amounted to coup-proofing behavior, trying to make sure that nobody in the younger ranks became sufficient­ly prominent or powerful to challenge her. That worked on its own terms — she is an extremely shrewd tactician — but only exacerbate­d the problem that, sooner or later, a successor would be necessary.

Jeffries, of course, may end up excelling despite a relative lack of experience. And adding a fresh face to the Democratic Party’s broader national leadership will be a welcome developmen­t.

But House Democrats ought to put in place structural reforms to ensure that more members Jeffries’ age will have the ability to take on more substantiv­e responsibi­lity before reaching the top ranks of leadership. The most natural way to achieve this would have been for the Pelosi/Hoyer/Clyburn troika to simply act with a little more considerat­ion for the future and a little less exaggerate­d sense of their own indispensa­bility.

But given the failure of that approach, it’s time to consider the kind of term limits that are in place on the GOP side. House Republican­s simply cap the number of years that a person can linger as a committee chair or caucus leader. This does carry certain costs — forcing members to run against each other to lead committees and encouragin­g early retirement of experience­d members. But it also ensures that young and ambitious members have opportunit­ies on a regular basis, and that there is a constant forward conveyor belt of members gaining more experience and prominence. And it means that Republican­s are able to recover from electoral defeat by rolling out some fresh new leaders not associated by the public with any past failures.

In a tribute to Pelosi, former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod called her “one of the most skillful, durable and accomplish­ed legislativ­e leaders in American history.” It’s all true. And part of the reason is that she benefited from having served lower-level leadership jobs. Part of her legacy ought to be making sure that no one else has quite as long a career at the very top as she did.

 ?? CAROLYN KASTER/AP ?? Lawmakers stand and applaud Thursday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks on the House floor at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
CAROLYN KASTER/AP Lawmakers stand and applaud Thursday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks on the House floor at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

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