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Nancy Pelosi’s Wizardry is Being Put to the Test

November 19, 2018

WASHINGTON -- Without Nancy Pelosi’s toughness, focus and legislative skill, there would probably be no Affordable Care Act. Her speakership during the Obama presidency left a legacy of achievement in other areas as well, including a far-reaching reform of Wall Street regulation and a massive economic stimulus that helped save a collapsing economy.

It would be hard to find a more effective fund-raiser for Democrats, and she just led her party to its largest House gains since 1974. Someone as canny and experienced as Pelosi would seem the natural choice to lead a House of Representatives that will, for at least two years, serve as the only check on a debased presidency and a supine Republican-led Senate.

Oh yes, and there is no obvious alternative to her leadership.

These are among the reasons why Pelosi is the overwhelming choice of House Democrats to return as Speaker, and why it’s very hard to find anyone willing to bet against her.

So what’s the problem?

Problem No. 1: The rules. If the speakership were determined by a caucus vote, she’d win easily. But on Jan. 3, 2019, the first vote of every member of the House will be for a new speaker. To win, a candidate needs a majority -- 218 if everyone votes, fewer if some members abstain or stay away.

Pelosi’s Democratic opposition has the power to vote for someone else in January, and they may be able to muster enough support to leave her with a plurality but not a majority. This would create a deadlock and lead to multiple ballots until someone won a majority. If you want to ponder the nightmare Democrats hope to avoid, consider that it took 133 ballots before Nathaniel Banks was elected speaker in 1856. No one expects anything that dramatic, but even just a few rounds of voting would court a return of the cliched headline the party loathes: “Democrats in disarray.”

Problem No. 2: Pelosi, after years of attacks from Republicans, polls badly enough that some freshmen Democrats promised voters that they would oppose her election as speaker, no matter what. There appear to be nine incoming freshmen who made hard commitments to vote against Pelosi while other new members issued somewhat vaguer vows to support new leadership.

The 2018 national exit poll found that only 31 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Pelosi, while 56 percent had a negative view. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who ran against Pelosi for minority leader in 2016 -- he got 63 Democratic caucus votes to her 134 -- argues that “it’s just not smart strategy” to burden the party’s candidates with a leader who polls so badly and requires so many of them to disown her. He’s talking up the virtues of his Ohio colleague Rep. Marcia Fudge, who is pondering entering the contest.

Pelosi’s defenders reply that only a weak and foolish party would let the GOP onslaught influence its choice: Republicans vilify her because they fear her effectiveness. And there is the fact that Pelosi is the first woman to serve as speaker of the House. Her supporters are not shy about calling out opponents, inside the party and out, as sexist.

Problem No. 3: The top three Democrats in the House are old in a party that increasingly relies on younger voters. Pelosi is 78, as is the No. 3 in the leadership, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. The No. 2, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, is 79.

The bottom line: Despite these problems, most in the party keep coming back to Pelosi as the right leader for the moment. This is one reason why she has been able to rally so many endorsements from activist groups that might in other circumstances be part of an insurgency.

A former House staffer not associated with the Pelosi camp noted another factor that may work in her favor: Frustration and concern among some new members that the party might bog itself down in a divisive inward-looking struggle when its focus should be on legislating -- and containing President Trump.

Pelosi is understandably reluctant to become an instant lame duck by promising to leave by the end of this term. But her frequent descriptions of herself as a “bridge” figure point to how this contest is likely to be resolved. Democrats need her experience now. They also need the promise of change. Here’s betting that if anyone can figure out how to bring these clashing impulses together, it’s Pelosi. It will be the supreme test of her wizardry.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com . Twitter: @EJDionne.

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