Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’?

Nancy Pelosi: Will she remain the ‘Face of the Franchise’?
© Greg Nash

Fans of the National Basketball Association are well aware of the debate as to which legend is greater: Michael Jordan or LeBron James. The most telling point is that with Jordan as the face of the Bulls franchise, his team was 6-0 in the NBA Finals, while LeBron was 1-4 with Cleveland and 2-2 with Miami for an overall total of 3-6. This metric gives Jordan a clear edge over James.  Needless to say, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics with his 11-1 record in the finals will be never be surpassed.

Do these observations have any comparable data in politics?


Much like Jordan, James and Russell, the leaders of each party in the US House of Representatives – the Speaker for the majority and the Minority Leader for the opposition – are the faces of the franchise.  While basketball and politics are both team endeavors, these leaders are at the top of their respective power pyramids.

Treating each election cycle as the political equivalent of the NBA Finals reveals a striking difference between the nation’s two major political parties: Republican House leaders are short-lived and often removed after party defeats, while Democratic House leaders are long-lived and not removed after party defeats.

Fifty years ago, on the day before Christmas, 1968, Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) was relaxing at his home three days after turning 77 when a call from 4th term Arizona Democrat, Morris Udall upset his world.  Udall called to tell McCormack that he intended to challenge him for the House Democratic nomination for Speaker in January at the opening of the 91st Congress. As Udall recalled, “the old man kept hoo-hawing season’s greetings. I finally took a deep breath and told him. He did not keep me on the line long.” Udall’s 58 votes and four for Ways and Means Chair Wilbur Mills of Arkansas in the Democratic caucus were not enough to overcome McCormack’s 178 votes, and none of the 62 Democratic dissidents cast floor votes against McCormack as Speaker when the Congress opened for business on January 3. But McCormack got the message. He chose to retire at the end of that term, two years later, at age 79, the same age that Sam Rayburn was when he died. Should Democrats recapture the House this year and elect Nancy Pelsosi as Speaker, she will turn 79 early in the first session of the upcoming Congress.

Udall’s was the first intraparty challenge to a sitting Speaker since 1923 when Progressive Republicans forced nine floor ballots before Speaker Frederick Gillett (R-Mass.) won his third election. Gillett left for the Senate in 1925.

While Gillett survived temporarily, other top Republican House leaders have not.  Minority Leaders Joe Martin of Massachusetts in 1959 and Charlie Halleck of Indiana in 1965 fell before restive minority members who had encountered defeats in the previous elections. Martin had been the face of the House Republicans in eleven elections from 1938 to 1958, of which two were victories (1946 and 1952) and nine were defeats. Halleck presided over three defeats (1960-62-64) and no victories.  The House Republican leader who faced the most defeats was Bob Michel of Illinois who had led the Republicans for twenty years with no victories and ten defeats, three as Minority Whip (1974-1978) and seven as Minority Leader (1980-1992). It was Michel who was nudged aside by Georgia’s conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich whose 1994 “Contract with America” gave Republicans control of the US House for the first time in 40 years.

Speaker Gingrich would also be nudged aside by fellow Republicans after the disappointing 1998 election. His successor Denny Hastert surrendered his leadership post in 2007 following the 2006 House election defeat. But both of Hastert’s immediate successors – Speakers John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLongtime House parliamentarian to step down Five things we learned from this year's primaries Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks MORE and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAt indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates Peterson faces fight of his career in deep-red Minnesota district MORE – left the Speaker’s chair frustrated by managing the discordant House Republican Conference – like “herding cats” as Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican Leader, would say.

The parties differ greatly. Including the 48 year-old Ryan, none of the last Republican Speakers came close to the age of 70 when they stepped aside from the Speaker’s Chair – Newt Gingrich at 55; Denny Hastert at 64; and John Boehner at 65 –ended their leadership careers at the average age of 58 while the four post-1971 Democratic Speakers – Carl Albert at 68, Tip O’Neill at 74, Jim Wright at 66, and Tom Foley at 65 ended their House careers at the average age of 68.25

While this may be good news for Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcConnell focuses on confirming judicial nominees with COVID-19 talks stalled Overnight Defense: Top admiral says 'no condition' where US should conduct nuclear test 'at this time' | Intelligence chief says Congress will get some in-person election security briefings Pelosi must go — the House is in dire need of new leadership MORE, not so good news is that Albert, O’Neill, and Wright, the franchise face successors to the original “Austin-Boston Connection” of Rayburn (9-2, 1940-60) and McCormack (4-0, 1962-68) were undefeated in their ten election cycles, 1970-88.

It has been more than two centuries since the last Democratic-affiliated Speaker was replaced by a fellow partisan in the chair.  In 1807, Speaker Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina chose not to run after angering President Thomas Jefferson by thrice naming Jefferson nemesis John Randolph of Roanoke as chair of the Ways and Means Committee. While Nancy Pelosi may again survive the mounting defections that seek to block her return to the speakership, it is hard to overlook that she has been the face of the House Democrats during the past eight election cycles when the Democrats have been victorious only twice (2006 and 2008) but defeated in six elections (2002-04 and 2010-12-14-16).  It is not a distinction that any other House Democratic leader has endured. Food for thought.

Garrison Nelson is the Elliott A. Brown Professor Emeritus of Law, Politics and Political Behavior at the University of Vermont. He was an editor of the seven-volume Committees in the US Congress, 1789-2010 and is the author of several books, including John William McCormack: A Political Biography (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).