Why Would Progressives Back a Right-Wing Challenge to Nancy Pelosi?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrives to face reporters at a news conference at the Capitol. 


Look at a list of the Democratic House members who’ve said they’re not going to vote for Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, and you’ll find a group of Democrats who either represent districts they’ve barely won, or Democrats who want to shift the party in a rightward direction. 

Some, like Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin and Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, are newcomers who narrowly defeated Republican incumbents in districts where right-wing media’s two decades of Pelosi demonization had taken a toll. Some are current members who’ve opposed Pelosi for being too liberal on social issues, like Ohio’s Tim Ryan, and Stephen Lynch and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Moulton’s PAC, which donated funds to a number of centrist Democrats this fall, was able to raise its funds “thanks to a network of donors rooted in the financial centers of Boston and New York,” according to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post. Not exactly the funding base for a new era of congressional progressivism. 

To be sure, the insurgency also has generational roots. All three of the party’s House leaders—Pelosi, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer and South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn—will be octogenarians in a couple of years, and the party plainly needs some changing of the guard. But perhaps more than anyone else, Pelosi personifies the Democrats’ liberal establishment, which means that the opposition to her disproportionately comes not from her left but from her right. 

Neither the liberal establishment nor Pelosi herself has a record that’s down-the-line left. But it was Pelosi who led the Democratic congressional opposition to the Iraqi war while other Democratic legislative leaders supported it; Pelosi who engineered the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, even as some key figures in the Obama White House (beginning with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) wanted to go for something much smaller; Pelosi who convinced every single member of the Democratic House Caucus to oppose the Republican tax cut last year. Yes, her current insistence that any increase in spending in the next Congress must be offset by a tax increase poses an obstacle to Democrats’ ability to address the nation’s needs. But overall, by either the metric of effectiveness or the metric of liberalism, she is the outstanding House leader of the past century—eclipsing Tip O’Neill, Sam Rayburn, and a long line of non-entities. 

Incoming leftwing members like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are rightly committed to pushing for distinctly more progressive legislation. The current challenge to Pelosi, however, would actually diminish the prospects for such legislation were it to succeed. As Donald Rumsfeld noted (with uncharacteristic accuracy), you go to war with the army you have, and the army (more like a platoon, really) that’s assembled to oust Pelosi stands measurably to her right, and even further to the right of members like Ocasio-Cortez. 

There will be plenty of ways to prod House Democrats to embrace more progressive policies—breaking up the banks, putting workers on corporate boards, greatly expanding Medicare, raising the minimum wage; it’s a long list. But ousting Nancy Pelosi isn’t on that list; it’s a way to ensure that that list won’t see light of day.   

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