After three straight losing seasons House Democrats just resigned their quarterback to another two year contract.
On a dreary rain soaked day, Democrats gathered in the Ways and Means Committee Hearing Room—where newly-emboldened Republicans will attempt to overhaul the nation’s tax code, making it the most business friendly in decades if they get their way—Nancy Pelosi was re-elected as minority leader. Her victory ended a short coup from newer members, who called for her ouster in the wake of this year’s dismal showing for Democrats.
Rank and file lawmakers fear the party establishment has learned nothing from the ascension of Trump - a case Republicans were more than happy to point out on Twitter and at the RNC where they recycled a 2010 “Fire Pelosi Banner” by turning the “F” into an “H.”
There is reason for concern because just losing Middle America, including their traditional Rust Belt firewall, Senate Democrats will be led by New York’s Chuck Schumer and Pelosi hails from the progressive mecca of San Francisco.
“We talk more about free range chickens than we talk about working people on the Democratic side sometimes here,” vocal Ryan backer Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) told The Daily Beast. “We’ve got to figure out why are we here, who do we represent and what causes will unify us, rather than segmented issues that divide us.”
Still, as a few dozen reporters huddled outside the room cracking jokes at the party’s expense and as Republicans walked past smirking at the thought of Democrats reappointing a leader they just beat, 134 of her colleagues voted her back into power. Even as one third of her party voted against her, she wore a smile.
“I have a special spring in my step today because this opportunity is a special one to lead the House Democrats, bring everyone together as we move forward,” Pelosi said. . “We know how to win elections. We’ve done it in the past. We will do it again.”
But the 76-year-old knows her role has drastically changed from when she became the first and only female speaker of the House in U.S. history in 2007 or even when she effectively became Obama’s defensive coordinator after Democrats got crushed in the 2010 midterms, losing more than 50 seats.
“I would trade anything to not have this opportunity of opposing an administration,” Pelosi said. “But nonetheless this does afford an opportunity so that the congressional Democrats can go forward and remove all doubt that never again will we have an election where there’s any doubt in anyone’s minds where the Democrats are when it comes to America’s working families.”
Now, as President-elect Donald Trump is picking a cabinet of Tea Party icons, “alt-right” media entrepreneurs and Wall Street bankers, the minority party remains mired in their own identity crisis.
While Democrats are trying put on the veneer of party unity, the party’s internal tensions could bubble to the surface over the next two years.
Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan surprised Pelosi and other party leaders when, the week after the election, younger members of the caucus demanded that the party delay their leadership elections. And while Pelosi predicted she’d secure the two thirds vote she got, the party’s top brass isn’t happy that 63 Democrats voted for the 43-year-old Ryan over her, which allowed him to claim a victory of sorts.
“Part of this campaign was to help energize a lot of people that want to get out there and contribute. I know walking out of that room today we’re a lot more energized caucus then we’ve had,” Ryan told reporters after the closed door vote.
Pelosi’s proven ability to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for House Democrats in cycle after cycle wasn’t enough to keep her detractors at bay this year.
“We bought into the money game,” Lynch said of Pelosi’s ability to fill the party’s campaign coffers. “I don’t think as Democrats, if you’re really representing the working people in this country, I don’t think you’re ever going to win the money game. That’s won by Wall Street, and we’re not natural allies.”
Other Democrats backed Ryan because they see Pelosi and her top lieutenants as too insular.
“She has conversations with people, just not enough of us. When’s the last time we had a message – on anything?” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) told The Daily Beast. “I think they need to stop doing the same thing and getting the same results. These same people keep telling us what we should be doing and we keep losing so obviously they are not giving us the kind of advice we need.”
“We need to look at every single state, every single district and decide what is best for that state and that district and not have a national message,” Fudge added. “We need to localize national elections.”
Pelosi’s allies say she got the message from the disgruntled rank and file; hence she expanded her leadership team and opened some opportunities for younger members to have leadership roles. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Cal.), one of two new Democrats tapped by Pelosi to help expand the party’s messaging arm, plans to focus on expanding the party’s appeal both regionally and generationally.
“It’s going back to the basics,” the 36-year-old Swalwell told The Daily Beast. “We’re going to have to go to places where we haven’t gone before.”
The party needs to win 24 seats in 2018 to regain the majority in the House, but Swalwell promised they’re going to focus on capturing “twice that.” He blames Hillary Clinton’s team for the party losing in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, not Pelosi.
“You can’t not go to Wisconsin and expect to win that state,” Swalwell said. “But I think this is a turning point for us.”
Other Pelosi allies said they voted her back into power because she’s proven she can win in the past, because the party will now turn from defending Obama to going on the offense against Trump.
“We’re going to change this year, because we have trouble in the White House, trouble in the House, trouble in the Senate and trouble in the appointees that Mr. Trump is presently making,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) told The Daily Beast.
“The message won’t be as difficult because the people will feel the message, because they’re going to be victims of this administration,” the member of the Congressional Black Caucus added. “All of us are going to be victims.”