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Speaker Pelosi? Maybe. Tea Party Redux? Not if She Can Help It

California Democrat won’t face the same problems Boehner did eight years ago

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — I’m not sure anyone enjoyed John Boehner’s speakership as much as I did covering him and his new majority in 2011 and 2012. What more can you ask for in a storyline than a merlot-loving congressional institutionalist who wins the speaker’s gavel on the wings of a pack of angry rebels?

Fast forward eight years to the Trump-fueled anger on the progressive left, along with projections that Democrats will more than likely win back the House, and you have to wonder if it’s time for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to switch from chocolate to cigarettes to gird herself for life leading a pack of would-be insurrectionists as Boehner had to do in 2011.

Assuming the Democrats net the 23 seats needed to win a majority and assuming that Pelosi gets the gavel for her party, longtime Democrats and Republicans I spoke with say she can probably stick to chocolate.

Luckily for Pelosi, there are multiple reasons to think she will avoid Boehner’s daily fate of trying to corral his wheelbarrow full of frogs — as he called his unwieldy caucus. Between the number of new members she’s likely to have (far fewer), their proximity to the middle of the road (they’ll be closer), and the number of would-be replacements gunning for her job (stand up if you’re out there!), the first woman who could be speaker twice will have lots of challenges, but a tea party rebellion redux in the House probably won’t be one of them.

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Fewer troublemakers

Based on the numbers alone, longtime Boehner aide Bill Greene said 2019 likely won’t serve up the same wild ride his former boss was treated to.

“In 2010 and 2011, Boehner faced a huge class of new members in the 112th Congress. There were 94 new House members (85 Republicans and nine Democrats),” Greene said. Even the most generous projections cap the Democrats best-case scenario at no more than 40 pickups, with more analysts putting the number quite a bit lower. That means one of Boehner’s heaviest lifts, “member education,” (shorthand for the arduous task of teaching the most basic “here’s-how-a-committee-works-and-how-a-bill-gets-passed”) would be about half as hard for a new Democratic majority.

Along with a smaller majority to wrangle, the professional backgrounds of the incoming new Democrats are likely to make them more familiar with — and less rebellious toward — the government they’re joining. Although plenty of them will not have held elective office before, many have been in the military, the intelligence agencies, or served in the Clinton or Obama administrations. Compare that to the doctors, nurses, professors and soybean farmers who won in 2010 for the GOP.

“The number one takeaway from the class Republicans elected in 2010 was that they had people who came to destroy Washington, not to make a difference,” said a senior Democratic aide who will work with incoming members next year. “I think it’s very clear voters want a check on Donald Trump, not a stop to the function of the federal government.”

But what about the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the world, the progressive Democrats who knocked off establishment ones with promises of “Medicare for All” and abolishing ICE? Democratic leadership aides say the most progressive members, along with the ones actively campaigning against a possible Speaker Pelosi, will make up a small portion of the caucus.

“Most of the candidates who will deliver our majority are the Red-to-Blue candidates in the swing districts,” a staffer said.

That leaves the question of how a Democratic majority might behave in 2019, with Donald Trump in the White House, progressive activists around the country looking for results, and a less-than-gigantic majority to work with

“There will be a lot of expectation management,” a senior Democrat told me. “Plenty of stuff may pass the House, but not much will be signed into law. Pelosi will need to sell rigorous, but tempered, Trump oversight.”

And that may be the challenge — and the biggest similarity to 2011 — for any incoming Democratic majority: bridging the gap between what some candidates promised and what anyone can deliver on Capitol Hill without an absolute majority in Washington.

Her own woman

If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Pelosi will almost certainly be running her caucus in 2019, and she’ll hold on to her power for now, not forever. But she’ll likely go out on her own terms.

Behind the machinations of candidates getting themselves elected this cycle have been Pelosi and her team helping them win. She’s raised money for them, of course. But she’s also called them after primaries to say congratulations and checked in to see how it’s going on the trail. She’s had several out to Napa for a thinking session and raised money in bulk for a whole lot more. The class of 2018 will be one that Pelosi helped to recruit, cultivate and champion. Would they bolt at their earliest convenience like the tea partiers did? It’s hard to imagine.

But because there’s no limit to what some people will do for power, praise or both in Washington, veterans of Capitol Hill say it’s lucky Pelosi developed the skill set to handle it a long time ago.

“You always have to remember, she had five kids under six. She ain’t no stranger to naughtiness and rebellion,” a Democratic veteran told me.

While Democrats are cautiously optimistic about their chances of retaking the House, Republicans like Greene are liking their own chances more and more these days. Not only is the economy smoking along, the president’s approval numbers have ticked up to the mid-40s, an improvement, at least, from where they were even a month ago.

Whether Democrats win or not, Greene offered one piece of hard-won advice for whomever is in charge next year:“I’d say, buckle up. It could get even more weird.”

And that may be the one thing we can count on, no matter what.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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