In 1981, Tip O’Neill was Speaker when President Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. The Democrats lost the Senate and a score of seats in the House. A group of insurgent Democrats decided it was time for a change of leadership and launched an attack on O’Neill to dethrone him as Speaker. He had been depicted by the Republicans as too old, too Massachusetts and from a bygone era of Democratic politics - some of the same arguments being used against Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDemocrats are playing voters on their fantasies for impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Trump tells House investigators 'no' Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary MORE (D-Calif.).

But O’Neill summoned his skills honed over 40 years laboring in the legislative vineyards to advance the Democratic agenda and beat back the insurgents. The rest, as they say is history. Over the next two years O’Neill galvanized the Democratic House as the loyal opposition as a redoubt against the Reagan revolution. He stood firm to protect social security and other safety net social programs. He became the foil to a popular president and when he retired in 1986, his popularity was on a par with Reagan’s. In 1982, he led the Democrats to capture 26 seats in the midterms.


O’Neill’s leadership in the House preserved Democratic programs and values - exactly what Nancy Pelosi has done in her years in the House, both as the first woman Speaker and then as minority leader. The next two years will require the same skill, dexterity and political perspicacity in the current split government that was required of O’Neill in 1981. There is another parallel between O’Neill and Pelosi that will serve her ability to manage an unprecedently diverse Democratic Caucus.

O’Neill hailed from the liberal academic enclave of Cambridge but brought a working class sensibility to office (his father was superintendent of sewers). Although Pelosi has resided in San Francisco for decades, she too hails from the working class precincts of Baltimore. O’Neill used the instincts honed in representing diverse districts to bridge a divide in a Caucus that ranged from Southern Democrats (William Jennings Bryan Dorn of North Carolina – who voted with liberals a mere 16 percent of the time – seconded his nomination for majority leader) to Northeast liberals – something Pelosi will also need to do to preserve her majority.

It is not a time to throw over the sure hand and experience of Pelosi for the fleeting sound bite and superficial appeal of a new face. Leaders with the intestinal fortitude to lead in difficult times aren’t born overnight - they are forged in the crucible of adversity and combat that renders them tested for the rigors of a contest with a Republican president and Senate that await the next Speaker. It is no time for unsure hands who have never lived through the legislative battles that Pelosi has successfully navigated. Just as O’Neill was the man for his time in the House, Pelosi is the woman for her time in the same way. The Democrats should read history and follow the proven path shown over 37 years ago.

Stanley M. Brand was Legislative assistant to Tip O’Neill from 1971-1974 and General Counsel to the U. S. House of Representatives under his Speakership from 1976-1984.