Most progressives are thrilled that Democrats achieved their goal of taking back the majority in the House of Representatives. But taking and holding the House isn’t an end in itself.
Taking back control of the House can be viewed the same way Americans saw the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II. It was critical for the Allies to take and hold Normandy to provide the foothold from which to create a western front and launch the assault that ended the war. No one would have considered capturing and holding Normandy as final victory.
The House is that kind of beachhead for Democrats. The party can now use the chamber as a platform to convert the energy of the backlash against the Trump presidency into taking back the Senate and electing a progressive Democratic president in 2020.
To succeed, progressives need a House speaker who is staunchly progressive, a visionary, tough strategist and an organizer. Luckily, there is an obvious candidate who fits that very description ― Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi Is A Committed Progressive
First and foremost, Pelosi is a committed progressive. Her views are shared by the vast majority of the newly elected Democratic caucus and by the country as a whole.
Pelosi understands that most Americans support progressive positions on health care, taxes, immigration, civil rights, gun violence, LGBTQ rights, unions, raising the wages of ordinary Americans and cleaning up government. She also understands that those progressive positions are supported overwhelmingly by the rising parts of the American electorate that swept Democrats to victory in the midterm elections and that they must mobilize to win again in 2020: young people, women, people of color.
According to a Democracy Corps post-election analysis, Democrats shifted the congressional margin 10 points on average from 2016, and 21 points in the seats that flipped to Democrats. Their national vote margin will likely end up just short of President Barack Obama’s in 2008. Democrats also pushed turnout to a stunning 48.1 percent, compared with 36.7 in 2014.
But Pelosi is also committed to building a caucus and a party that takes a populist, progressive message to working people and rural Americans who are angry that rich elites and giant corporations have taken every dime of the 48-percent increase in per-person Gross Domestic Product in the last 30 years.
Pelosi has steadfastly supported unions, raising the minimum wage, and creating a tax code that makes CEOs and big corporations pay their fair share. She also led the opposition to the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy.
Before the midterms, the health industry newsletter Stat reported that in July, when Pelosi was invited to speak to the board of directors of Phrma, the drug industry lobby, she served notice that she intended to drive an ambitious legislative program to lower prescription drug prices and stop industry price gouging. Stat described it as a “come to Jesus” moment for the industry.
Pelosi made headlines in February after smashing a 109-year-old record for her eight-hour speech on the House floor in support of Dreamers, the young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
And her connections with grassroots progressive organizations are unrivaled. She convenes regular calls with scores of those organizations to hear updates on their priorities and to share news from the House.
The Master Organizer And Strategist Democrats Need
Pelosi, together with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Ben Ray Lujan, are the two people most responsible for the Democratic victory in the midterms.
Many Republican members of Congress made great pains to link their opponents to Pelosi, betting that Pelosi’s low favorability ratings ― largely the result of years of Republican attacks ― would damage Democrats. That turned out to have no more effect than Newt Gingrich’s low favorability ratings when Republicans took over the House in 1994. History shows that the public favorability of congressional leaders has no correlation whatsoever to victory or defeat. That’s simply not how people vote in midterms. And, of course, the face of the Democratic Party in 2020 will be its nominee for president.
What mattered most from Pelosi in the midterms ― and will matter most in 2020 ― are her skills as a general, as a political organizer and strategist.
And even if you believe that the Republican attacks on Pelosi took some toll, that was obviously offset by her success as an organizer and fundraiser, since Democrats won more House seats in these midterms than any election since Watergate.
Under Pelosi and Lujan’s leadership, the party recruited the best collection of House candidates in memory ― running in all but two of the 435 congressional districts ― and put over 100 seats in play.
What’s more, Pelosi and Lujan oversaw an unprecedented fundraising drive that gave Democrats a massive financial advantage ― money that went into organizing, voter mobilization and communication.
And, in case her prodigious fundraising record creates any doubt, she is a leading backer of campaign finance reform and has pledged to spearhead a drive to pass legislation in the next Congress.
But Pelosi is not just a great campaign organizer. She is a brilliant tactician and organizer inside of the House itself.
The now very popular Affordable Care Act was largely passed as a result of that legislative skill ― and she held 100 percent of the caucus to defend it against Republican repeal attempts last year. As speaker, she passed the Dodd-Frank legislation to rein in Wall Street after the great financial collapse of 2008, and the $787 billion Recovery Act of 2009 that saved or created millions of jobs, among dozens of other major initiatives.
Challenge From Conservative Democrats
It has now been reported by HuffPost that a small group of Democrats ― 17 incumbents and incoming freshmen ― are pledging to vote against Pelosi on the floor of the House, denying her the votes necessary for election to speaker and forcing her to step aside in favor of another Democrat.
This group is led by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), and is made up primarily of more conservative members of the Democratic caucus.
Some in the group have been plotting to oust Pelosi for some time, claiming in 2017 that her continued leadership would lead Democrats to defeat. After Jon Ossoff lost a special election in Georgia last year, one of the plotters, Rep. Filemon Vela of Texas, said, “I think you’d have to be an idiot to think we could win the House with Pelosi at the top.” Not only was that prediction dead wrong, an African American gun violence survivor, Lucy McBath, won the district Ossoff lost ― a district once represented by Newt Gingrich.
At least 10 incoming freshman representatives pledged to oppose Pelosi as speaker during their campaigns ― at least in a Democratic caucus vote. But it is not whether they will join the Ryan-Moulton group to oppose her on the House floor.
The Moulton group knows it can’t field a candidate who could get majority support of the Democratic caucus in an open contest with Pelosi, so its threat is based on the idea that they would actually throw in with the Republicans on the floor vote unless the caucus comes up with an alternative to Pelosi. I can’t imagine the voters who ushered in those new Democrats would be pleased to see their new representative join with Republicans to block the nominee of the Democratic caucus for speaker with their first vote in Congress. They can fulfill their pledge by voting against Pelosi in the “primary” held in the Democratic caucus.
It’s also a simple question of math.
Before the election, some challengers were quoted saying that they had the best chance to stop Pelosi if there were a very thin Democratic margin of victory ― meaning she would need every last vote from her party. Yet Democrats, by flipping what looks to be as many as 38 seats, ended up with a more substantial margin than the plotters may have hoped. Ryan and Moulton claim they have more voters against Pelosi who have yet to declare themselves publicly. But right now, they would need every member who has said they would oppose her to hold fast.
And even if they get 20 members to execute their plan, they intend to hold more than 90 percent of the Democratic caucus hostage to the demands of a tiny part of the caucus membership. That’s not democracy.
Meanwhile, the progressive base of the party would be incensed if the Moulton group denies the speakership to the progressive female leader that led the greatest House Democratic victory since Watergate ― especially in the “year of the woman.” That could have significant political consequences in Democratic primaries for some of the plotters.
Bottom line: The odds remain very good that the Democrats in the House will, in fact, be led by a strong progressive leader ― Nancy Pelosi ― during the next two critical years, when more is at stake than at any time in the last half-century.
Robert Creamer is a longtime political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win. He is a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.