Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly press briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Friday. AFP
After being denied a repeat of 2018’s “blue wave” election results this year, congressional Democrats will limp back to Washington in January with a narrowed majority, no control of the Senate, and exposed fault lines that could grow into significant fissures just two years from now, insiders say.
Voters delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats’ plans for unified government on Tuesday by giving Republican challengers back a number of the seats their party lost just two years ago.
Among the casualties in the House of Representatives were Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson of Minnesota, freshman representatives Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, Max Rose of New York and Oklahoma’s Kendra Horn, plus a pair of Floridians, representatives Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala.
In the Senate, Alabama Democrat Doug Jones lost the seat once held by ex-attorney general Jeff Sessions to a former football coach, with Jones’s loss balanced by former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper’s ouster of GOP incumbent Cory Gardner. Former astronaut Mark Kelly flipped the seat once held by the late Arizona senator John McCain to the Democrats’ column, but no other challengers to Republican incumbents have as yet succeeded in garnering the votes needed to cut Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s conference down to 49.
Even with former vice president Joe Biden poised to garner the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the presidency, Democrats’ hopes of starting the 117th Congress with a mandate to push through an ambitious legislative program for President Biden’s signature have gone up in smoke.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged the “challenging” nature of Tuesday’s results in a letter to her caucus on Wednesday, in which she said House Democrats will “have the opportunity to deliver extraordinary progress” working with a Biden administration by “deliver[ing] on our successful For The People agenda: lower healthcare costs, bigger paychecks by building green infrastructure and cleaner government”, even though most of that agenda has heretofore been ignored by the Senate under McConnell’s control.
But even as Pelosi projected confidence about the possibility of progress under a Biden administration, top Democrats are pessimistic – and some aren’t shy about throwing blame around.
“We spent most of this year being weak, feckless and easily caricatured as extreme, and this is the result,” said one senior Capitol Hill staffer.
The staffer, who has served in various top roles with House members for many years, said Pelosi and other top Democrats’ failure to rein in high-profile but inexperienced and undisciplined freshman representatives such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the “Squad” cost Democrats seats by letting Republican challengers “beat us over the head every time one of them goes on TV or tweets”.
“A speaker, majority leader, whip or conference chair has leverage over backbenchers. But not once did anyone do what was needed to get any of them to act like a normal freshman, shut the f*** up and not be a walking Republican attack ad,” they said.
According to operatives involved in several House campaigns, Republicans were able to flip seats in places like South Florida not only by making hay out of progressive House members’ tweets on subjects like “court-packing”, but with a steady drumbeat of ads accusing even the most centrist of House Democrats of being socialists. Such attacks had a significant effect in places with significant South and Central American immigrant populations, they said.
Democrats have long scoffed at Republicans’ frequent use of the term “socialist” to attack them. During his final debate with President Trump, Biden took pains to note that he had defeated the self-described democratic socialist in the race, senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
But representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who will be returning to the Capitol for a third term in January, said in a phone interview that Democrats need to be more adept at responding to Republican attacks on “socialism” because the sheer number of times they are repeated makes them resonate with voters.
The dual challenges of rebuilding House Democrats’ brand while pushing through an agenda with a GOP Senate are sure to weigh heavily on Pelosi, who has pledged to step down from her role as the lower chamber’s top Democrat in 2023.
Several sources close to rank-and-file House Democrats say the anger building toward Pelosi and other top Dems might normally result in a challenge to her, majority leader Steny Hoyer, or majority whip James Clyburn in upcoming leadership elections. The three of them have had a hammerlock on the Democratic caucus leadership roles since 2003, but a senior House staffer said the triumvirate’s longevity has had the effect of forcing out anyone who might have the ambition required to make a play against Pelosi.
“I don’t think anyone in the Democratic caucus necessarily has the stomach for it,” the staffer said. They also dismissed the possibility that someone would mount a challenge against Clyburn, who they described as “untouchable” after his pivotal role in securing the Democratic presidential nomination for Joe Biden with a key endorsement before the South Carolina primary in March.
Bob Carr, a George Washington University adjunct professor who represented Michigan in the House from 1975 to 1993, agreed that the current leadership’s long tenure has caused a bit of a brain drain as ambitious members decide to move on because they have no realistic hope of achieving a leadership role. However, he said the “benign conspiracy” between Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn could benefit the caucus next year by preventing distracting intra-party fights.
“Even if they are not the very top choice of everybody, at least they provide stability against the chaos that results from an open contest of some kind right now,” he said. Pelosi’s self-imposed term limit and the advanced age of her two top lieutenants means crafting a succession plan is of paramount importance because the leadership vacuum created by her eventual resignation could be ugly, he added.
“Steny has not done this all his life without having some thought of his own speakership some day, and the clock is ticking. If you could ordain it on high, you’d say Pelosi steps aside, he takes his victory lap as speaker for a term, then he leaves and Clyburn takes his turn,” Carr continued. “But in the meantime, you’ve got all these people who have their own ambitions … who are saying it’s time for generational renewal, but who wants to pick that candidate and have it erupt into total chaos and bitterness? So what do they all do? They sit around and say, Well, Hoyer and Pelosi and Clyburn are not so bad.”
Andrew Feinberg, The Independent
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