Pelosi will be a hard act to follow
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.