Milbank: Why Nancy Pelosi should retire now on her terms

Posted11/25/2018 1:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Nancy Pelosi had an exceptional 2018 midterm election cycle. Her prodigious fundraising and the message discipline she helped impose propelled House Democrats to their biggest gains since 1974. She has proved herself to be a skilled legislative whip, and she is -- by far -- the best person to lead House Democrats in 2019.

This is why she should announce her retirement.


Paradoxical? Not at all.

The 16 House Democrats who signed a letter Monday declaring they would vote against Rep. Pelosi, Calif., for speaker, combined with a dozen others who have vaguely stated their opposition, represent a potent threat to her leadership. The rebels also threaten to divide Democrats at precisely the time they need to be a disciplined counter to President Donald Trump.

But the dissidents are justified in their desire for new leadership. Pelosi has led House Democrats for 16 years (compared with 10 for the legendary Thomas "Tip" O'Neill) and has already served as speaker. She and the No. 2 and No. 3 House Democrats, Steny Hoyer, Md., and James Clyburn, S.C., are all pushing 80 at a time when the party is becoming younger. Pelosi herself recently said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that she wishes to be a "transitional figure."

So she should be that transitional figure -- now. By announcing that this will be her last term, she would deflate the insurgency against her, give new members a reason to feel good about voting for her, lead Democrats with discipline in 2019 and preside over an orderly transition.

There are many reasons to be cynical about the 16-member putsch against Pelosi, led by the likes of Reps. Tim Ryan, Ohio, and Seth Moulton, Mass. At a time when the House Democratic caucus will be made up of only 38 percent white males, 13 of the 16 signatories are white men.

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Though they claim to desire "change" and "new leadership," five of the 16 signers -- Stephen F. Lynch, Mass., Kurt Schrader, Ore., Brian Higgins, N.Y., Anthony Brindisi, N.Y., and Jeff Van Drew, N.J. -- also signed a letter just last week supporting Hoyer, BuzzFeed's Lissandra Villa noted. Hoyer is a year older than Pelosi and has been in his position just as long.

And though the rebels justify their rebellion by saying "our majority came on the backs of candidates who said that they would support new leadership," 11 of the 16 are from relatively safe seats and only five were just elected. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old darling of progressives, said this week that she is leaning toward supporting Pelosi: "I would like to see new, younger leadership, but I don't want new leadership that's more conservative."

The rebellion of 16, finally, threatens to paralyze House Democrats and deny them a unifying voice just as the presidential primaries factionalize the party. Though they could register their disapproval by voting "present" on the House floor, which could still allow Pelosi to be elected by a majority, their letter says they are "committed to voting for new leadership." This, and the absence of an announced opponent -- they aren't about to vote for Republican Kevin McCarthy, Calif. -- essentially means their goal is deadlock.

Apparently, with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation hanging by a thread and Trump continuing to run amok, the rebels think Democrats would benefit from a replay of 1855, when it took two months and 133 ballots to select a speaker.


I share their desire for new blood. Two years ago, I urged Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn to step down, noting that their combined ages date back to 1787. Though Democrats prevailed in 2018, and there is little evidence that Pelosi dragged any Democrat down, this doesn't change the reality that it would be easier to boost enthusiasm among millennials if the party's leadership were turned over to a new generation.

Pelosi seems to know this, on some level. As she said in her Los Angeles Times interview: "I have things to do. Books to write; places to go; grandchildren, first and foremost, to love." She wasn't specific, expressing reluctance to "make myself a lame duck right here over this double-espresso."

But now is the time to make herself a lame duck (and coax Hoyer and Clyburn into that pond, too). Pelosi allies fear she would lose her fundraising clout if she announced this to be her last term. But Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who announced his retirement in April, did fine as a lame-duck fundraiser, even during a bad year for Republicans. His Congressional Leadership Fund raised nearly $144 million this cycle, and his Team Ryan joint fundraising committee raised an additional $64 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

By announcing that this will be her last term, Pelosi would make herself the kingmaker (or queenmaker), while remaining the disciplinarian Democrats urgently need. This is the time to begin a departure on her terms.

© 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

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