Young, restive Dems want change in House

Young, restive Dems want change in House
© Greg Nash

Rep. Tim Ryan's (D-Ohio) long-shot challenge to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) has shone a rare public spotlight on rank-and-file frustrations that have simmered, largely in whispers, for more than half a decade.

Those restive voices agree that the Democrats need a hefty shakeup to get back on a winning track. But there's lingering dissent about the roots of the party's problems, what changes would best address them and whether Pelosi and the current leadership team are best suited for righting the listing ship.

The debate — and Pelosi’s reluctant decision to delay leadership elections until Nov. 30 to accommodate longer discussion — have highlighted the inner turmoil among Democrats seeking a new strategy to correct problems many say transcend one disastrous election cycle. 

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“It's not just about messaging,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). It's about “who the hell we are [and] where we're going.”

In the view of Ryan and some other newer lawmakers, regional diversity is key, and the only way to reverse the party’s misfortunes is through a changing of the guard at the very top.

Ryan says Pelosi, a liberal icon from San Francisco who's radioactive in the eyes of conservatives, simply doesn't speak to the Rust Belt workers like those in his district, where voters split the ballot in favor of him and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister MORE, the Republican president-elect.

“I'm uniquely qualified, because I know who these people are,” Ryan said Sunday on CNN's “State of the Union” program. “And some of them are friends of mine, neighbors of mine. ... We have to get those people back into the fold.

“I know in my heart that we cannot win the House back under the current leadership.”

Backing the 43-year-old Ryan over the weekend, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) cited a similar argument that party leaders need to be more inclusive. 

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“Coming from the Great Lakes region and from a manufacturing town,” Perlmutter said, Ryan “fits the bill for a new messenger for the Democratic caucus.”

Part of the internal division is generational. The 76-year-old Pelosi has led the Democrats for 14 years, and her top two deputies, also in their mid-70s, have been at her side for a decade. Scores of Democrats say that experience — and Pelosi's legendary ability to unite the caucus — is needed now more than ever to counter the incoming Trump administration and the Republican majorities in both chambers.

“The press keeps confusing aged with ancient,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said last week as Congress prepared for its Thanksgiving recess. “There's a big difference. We have an aged caucus, not ancient.”

Yet Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Paul Ryan says Biden likely won't get Democratic nomination Judd Gregg: Honey, I Shrunk The Party MORE (R-Wis.) and his leadership team are both decades younger and relatively new to leadership, and some Democrats fear the generational contrast not only projects the message that Democrats are incapable of change but also clips the ambitions of younger up-and-coming lawmakers, who have either left the House already or are eying opportunities to do so — an exodus Pelosi herself has lamented.

Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), a 51-year-old just elected to her second term, endorsed Tim Ryan's leadership bid Sunday with the suggestion that, under Pelosi, the party's direction has been largely dictated from the top.

“He's focused on reforming our caucus, bringing more independent and diverse voices into leadership and into the decision-making process, and making leadership more accountable to our members,” she said.

“He has a lot of good ideas,” Rice added, “but maybe most importantly, he also isn't suggesting he has all the answers.”

Other young Democrats see room to keep the current leaders in place while adopting measures to empower the newer members beneath them. 

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who turned 36 last week, said he's doing “everything I can do to make sure Leader Pelosi comes back but has new energy behind her.”

“That means enabling newer, younger members to play a role that is more creative; a role that is more constructive; a role that is more public in what we do, to show that we're developing our younger leaders,” Swalwell said.

Toward that end, Pelosi tapped Swalwell two years ago to lead a new group, dubbed the Future Forum, designed to communicate with millennial voters. His marching orders, Swalwell said, were to “take on some of these issues that the more senior members may not necessarily understand.” Since then, the group's 18 members have visited 31 cities, “engaged thousands of young people” and crafted legislation based on what they heard, including proposals to rein in college debt, he said.

Following this month's elections, the Future Forum's membership has swelled to 25, and Swalwell said Pelosi could take long strides toward making greener members feel more empowered by creating similar groups targeting specific policy issues like healthcare and climate change — a move “allowing us to be more like special-ops than a top-down force.”

“There are a lot of problems and challenges out there that need hands on deck,” he said. “People just want to feel like they can shape what we're doing next and that it's not so top-down.”

With Pelosi the heavy favorite to keep her minority leader spot, Democrats are also promoting the idea of carving out other leadership posts to ease the bottleneck at the top of the party. There's a precedent there, as Pelosi created spots for Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in 2006, Clyburn in 2010 and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) in 2014. 

Ryan on Saturday unveiled four reforms he's vowing to adopt within the caucus if he becomes leader. Among them is the immediate creation of a new elected leadership post with the following prerequisite: the member who holds it must have been on Capitol Hill for three terms or less.

Some young Democrats are also urging a change in the way the head of the party's campaign arm is chosen. Right now, Pelosi appoints the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) unilaterally. Some members want the caucus to vote on that post, as the Republicans do.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), for one, said he'd “absolutely” support such a change.

“Certainly there are people that are talking about that,” he said.

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While House Democrats picked up a handful of seats this cycle, the number was far below the double-digit gains they'd expected. Pelosi has acknowledged the frustrating results, but she's also blamed external factors — notably FBI Director James Comey's 11th-hour announcement that his agency was reviewing emails possibly related to its earlier investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOmar endorses progressive Georgia Democrat running for House seat Bernie Sanders's Super Tuesday problem Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength MORE's private email server — as being out of leadership's hands.

“We have to do our after-action review thoroughly and see what we could have done differently,” she said Thursday, “but a lot of it was beyond our control.”

That argument isn't sitting well with some rank-and-file members, who want leaders to be more answerable to the party's entrenched minority status. 

“We are the constituents of leadership,” said Gallego, who turned 37 Sunday. “We have a right to know what's going to happen in the future, and we need to have some accountability for what occurred.”

President Obama entered the fray over the weekend on a swing through Peru, when he hailed Pelosi as “a remarkable leader” of “extraordinary political skill” who's “done stuff that's unpopular in her own base because it's the right thing to do.”

“I don't normally meddle with party votes, and certainly on my way out the door, probably I shouldn’t meddle here,” Obama said. “But I cannot speak highly enough of Nancy Pelosi.”