Very few leaders, from professional sports coaches to Fortune 500 CEOs, keep their jobs after three straight losing seasons.
Nancy Pelosi has led House Democrats since 2003, bringing them out of the wilderness in 2006, taking them all the way to 256 seats after the 2008 elections only to oversee the drop to the current nadir of 188 members, the result of three straight elections of missing the majority mark.
The California Democrat, though, is not going anywhere. Her strong personal connections and fundraising prowess have secured her spot atop a caucus guided by seniority.
The truth is, no one can quite imagine who would replace her. And therein lies a problem.
“The Democratic side has not given fresh blood a real opportunity since I’ve been here,” said Rep. Michael E. Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat elected to Congress in 1998.
“I want some people in their 70s and 80s at the table. I don’t want only 70s and 80s at the table.”
The sentiments expressed in February by Capuano, who represents the district of the legendary Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, are not uncommon among House Democrats and outside observers.
“If everything is frozen, you’re postponing the future regeneration of the Democratic Party,” says Sarah A. Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The 2016 election shows how dynamic, unpredictable and fast-moving the political process is.
[Related: Are House Democrats the Rolling Stones of American Politics?]
By failing to develop new leaders, Democrats risk undercutting their image as the party of good governance. Not providing an outlet for new ideas can hamstring their ability to manage everything from the mundane (running a political convention), to the necessary (recruiting quality candidates and fundraising) and even the profound (developing and executing new policies at the local, state and federal levels.)
A political party perpetually on defense can find itself ultimately bereft of ideas and growth.
No Room at the Top
The Democrats’ methods for selecting those who lead the caucus and serve as top person in committees lean heavily on the seniority system, with some notable exceptions. In leadership, the caucus chairmanship and vice chairmanship are limited to two terms. And there have been some notable examples of more-junior members seeking to displace chairmen or ranking members from their perches, with mixed results.
But the upper echelons of the Democratic leadership are unchanged for several years running.
And two recent personnel moves raised the issue of succession in the top tiers of leadership. Two veteran House Democrats long viewed as natural heirs — Chris Van Hollen and Steve Israel, both 57 — have decided to move on after the 2016 elections.
[Related: 25 debates, 9 Democrats and 1 expensive race to replace Chris Van Hollen]
They take with them a bridge from the current leadership ranks — Pelosi, 76, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, 76, and Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, 75 — to a group of respected 30-something members, such as Eric Swalwell of California, Joseph P. Kennedy III and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
“There’s been a lot of transition in our caucus. We’re losing people of stature who many would have assumed would be next in line,” says Jared Huffman, a Californian elected in 2012. He makes a point echoed by many Democrats disheartened to lose Maryland’s Van Hollen, who is running for an open Senate seat.
Pelosi defends the seniority system as a reflection of the caucus’ wishes, as well as a way to ensure women and minorities have opportunities to serve at the highest levels.
“You could make the opposite argument that [term limits] would enable a number of other people to take over those positions. That is not the wish of our caucus. It is a regularly debated issue,” she said.
She also brushes off the notion that the power is all at the top in the caucus. “The caucus will make its decision as to who its leaders are,” she said, adding, “Nobody has ever come to me and said, ‘I’m leaving because I’m afraid I’m not going to be speaker.’ They come to me and say, ‘I have this opportunity to do this, that or the other thing, when they do leave. And I don’t see that many people leaving,” Pelosi said.
[Related: Pennsylvania Democrats Want to Know: Why McGinty?]
But Ronald M. Peters, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, says Van Hollen’s departure, in particular, sends a signal to the caucus. “That’s an indication that staying in the House would not result in winning the majority. And there are no openings at the top,” says Peters, who chronicled the minority leader’s rise to power in “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics.”
The Republican Way
That contrasts with the Republican side of the aisle, which enforces strict three-term limits on committee chairmen and whose future leaders, including Paul D. Ryan, Kevin McCarthy and Eric Cantor, asserted themselves strongly after the GOP’s 2006 electoral wipeout by branding themselves the “Young Guns.” They wrote a book together and set the table for their eventual return to the majority in 2011.
But Democrats don’t have to look across the aisle for an example of how that works.
In the Senate, Charles E. Schumer of New York established strong relationships with two big freshman classes as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and 2008. He moved into a new role as the No. 3 Senate Democrat afterward. And when Senate Democrats’ longtime leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced his retirement, Schumer’s eventual ascension to the top slot was assured within hours, largely based on the loyalty he cultivated among those two classes of Democrats.
Huffman says Pelosi could help stabilize the caucus as it moves into a transitional phase. But without Van Hollen and Israel, there is no obvious heir.
“I think the fact that Nancy is staying on for a bit more time is kind of a blessing in a way. It brings us stability in the leadership that we’re going to need for the next few years to sort this out,” he says.
Stability can also lead to stagnation, a concern many Democrats hammered home.
“Until we start promoting based on merit, not based on seniority, whether implicitly or explicitly, I don’t think they are doing enough,” says Moulton, a 37-year-old, Harvard-educated Marine elected in 2014. “Tell me what successful institution in the world succeeds by only promoting based on seniority.”
Pelosi has her eye on a summer rollout for an economic-driven agenda that could echo the Democratic “Six for ’06” campaign used to win the majority a decade ago.
She says the policy and campaign agenda will be focused in part on addressing income inequality and trying to “level the playing field” for workers and their families, and would run in tandem with the Democratic presidential nominee.
“We will work with our presidential nominee, whoever she may be, to advance a joint agenda,” Pelosi says.
But that might not be enough to address qualms about future leadership in the House Democratic Caucus.
“I am not the person who has this magic silver bullet on how to bring us back to the majority. But I do know one thing. If we don’t change what we have been doing, the results won’t change,” Capuano says. “I actually think Nancy is great. I think she’s been a great leader, and philosophically we’re on the same page. But we’ve now lost more seats in history, than in modern history, and we’ve had three chances to get it back. Clearly something is wrong. I know what we have isn’t working. It’s time for a change.”
“We have a generation problem,” says former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, a one-time chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a former rival of Pelosi for the top caucus job. “We’ve got to find a way for younger people to get exposure,” he says.
Democrats are quick to name a few less senior members who have already achieved leadership roles: Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, 49, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, 58, the outgoing caucus chairman, and Joseph Crowley of New York, 54, the caucus vice chairman. Crowley is running unopposed, so far, to succeed the two-term-limited Becerra in November.
Another possibility is the man Pelosi picked to succeed Israel at the DCCC this cycle, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who is 43.
After the November elections, only one contested leadership race is expected, as Californians Linda T. Sánchez and Barbara Lee face off to replace Crowley as caucus vice chairman.
And some high-profile committee ranking members, such as Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith of Washington and Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff of California, are in their 50s.
Other Democrats mention promising junior members: Moulton, Kennedy, Gabbard, Dan Kildee of Michigan, Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, Ruben Gallego and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Joaquin Castro of Texas.
Some are in Hoyer’s whip operation, or are lieutenants in the DCCC. But those roles don’t carry the heft or responsibility of a committee chairmanship or ranking member slot.
But depending on timing, some of those future leaders might see outside opportunities and bolt the House.
Pelosi disputes that connection.
She brushes off the assertion that Van Hollen left because he couldn’t see a clear House leadership path. He left, she says, because he saw an open Senate seat.
“If Barbara Mikulski had not announced her retirement, I’m sure that we would still very much have Chris Van Hollen and Donna Edwards in the Congress, two people that I had advanced in the leadership,” Pelosi says.
Van Hollen, first elected in 2002, passed up an earlier opportunity to run for the Senate when Maryland had another open seat in 2006; he was rewarded with the chairmanship of the DCCC for the 2008 and 2010 cycles. And when he considered challenging then-Caucus Chairman John B. Larson of Connecticut, Pelosi made Van Hollen assistant to the speaker.
So it can be argued he bided his time in the House. But the opportunity to replace Mikulski seemed more attractive — or more realistic — than becoming speaker some day.
Illinois Democrat Bill Foster, a physicist and one of the caucus’ more thoughtful members, puts the issue in scientific terms.
“So there’s an interesting trade-off in evolution, that when your environment is changing rapidly, you want your species to have a small lifespan, so that they can evolve rapidly,” he says. “Whereas if the environment is stable, then you want a very long lifespan because you don’t want to waste [resources] killing off one generation and raising the next one. And so I think that because our political environment is now changing fairly rapidly, I think there’s an argument for having a smaller lifespan for leadership.”
Pelosi and Hoyer have spent time cultivating newer members.
Sánchez, after being picked by Pelosi for the thankless job as the top Democrat on the Ethics Committee, has regained her old seat on the plum Ways and Means Committee.
Pelosi also last year asked Swalwell to head up the caucus’ millennial outreach program, the Future Forum, and in February she tapped him to be vice chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which guides, among other caucus decisions, committee assignments.
Hoyer picks talent by naming members to his whip team, as he did with Swalwell.
The multiple positions seem to keep the 35-year-old Swalwell content, and he appreciates the vote of confidence from Pelosi.
“She wanted to find ways for us to serve and develop,” he says, saying his Future Forum coordinating has a natural connection to his position on the steering committee.
“I give an update every week just on what we’re hearing from millennials,” he says. He hopes that leads to gains in the polls.
Sánchez says she, too, is grateful, but also makes clear some members do not receive much guidance about whether such attention is part of an advancement plan for younger members. “I know that she gives different opportunities to people in the caucus. I don’t know that the endgame is to cultivate that,” Sánchez says.
The More Things Change …
In recent years, Pelosi has opened the door to studying caucus rules changes, but major shifts have not happened.
Some members continue to make the case for changes in the structure and rules for the caucus after the elections — including possible term limits for top committee slots and more elected slots in the leadership and on the Steering and Policy Committee.
Such changes likely would require year-end support from incoming freshmen.
“All of that should be subject to a larger discussion, including tenure” for committee ranking members, says Ron Kind of Wisconsin, chairman of the New Democrat Coalition.
Keith Ellison of Minnesota, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said the party should take a hard look at its agenda and caucus operations: “We need to look at everything … If you’re not winning, you need to look at how you can win,” Ellison says.
Katherine M. Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat who came to Congress via special election in December 2013, says, “We want to make sure we have a talent pool and people see a future for themselves and can have continuing and growing influence. I think it’s been interesting to watch the Republicans, who do have term limits and see the younger members rise fairly quickly to powerful positions. And there is a lesson to be learned from that, and that the Democrats who have come in the last few years are very open to.”
Many Democrats, though, are wary of a GOP-style system of hard term limits. “I think there are ways to create a leadership structure that allows for matching newer, younger members with more senior members to make sure we’re taking advantage of both,” says Michigan’s Kildee, who is a senior whip and coordinator for the DCCC’s Frontline program.
Even Foster, who put the issue in terms of survival of the species, says, “The advantage of the seniority system is well known. You don’t have constant scheming, little power structures go up and so on.”
The Care and Feeding of Members
Peters says Pelosi mastered the art of “constant cultivation of all the members” in the years-long lead-up to her 2001 contest with Hoyer to be Democratic whip, which she won.
“Her style of leadership is very personal. It’s not delegatable,” he says.
Peters says the caucus was marked by conflicts among top leaders, chairmen and faction leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, and has operated in relative peace under Pelosi. She has assuaged factions by using Hoyer as a bridge to moderates, and Clyburn as one to minorities and Southerners.
Through it all, Democrats have stuck for the most part to a traditional seniority system with few term limits among leadership or committee positions, except for caucus chairman and vice chairman.
The exceptions are notable.
After the 2006 elections, Pelosi’s close ally, appropriations power John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, ran against Hoyer, already the No. 2 Democrat, for the majority leader slot, raising concerns in the caucus about a flare-up between Pelosi and Hoyer. Hoyer trounced Murtha, 149-86.
After the 2008 elections, Pelosi backed her longtime ally
Henry A. Waxman of California in his bid to displace John D. Dingell of Michigan as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman prevailed.
After the 2014 elections, she backed her friend and fellow Californian Anna G. Eshoo to be ranking member of Energy and Commerce over the more senior Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. Pallone won in a rare blow to Pelosi’s clout.
Overall, though, Pelosi’s influence has endured.
And other veterans such as Lee predict Pelosi will remain the template as Democrats choose their next leaders. “It’s a great model. … Her leadership style is what we need,” Lee says.
Former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, D-Calif., and Peters agree Pelosi’s eventual successor will fit the strong-leader model: “If you’re not a strong leader, you’re not going to get the top job. Democrats have not had that deep division that Republicans have. Republicans needed a conciliator like Ryan,” Coelho says.
“She will be a hard act to follow,” Peters says.