House Democrats have reasons to remain satisfied with Nancy Pelosi

House Democrats have reasons to remain satisfied with Nancy Pelosi
© Bonnie Cash

Just two years after a widely celebrated midterm election victory and return to power, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden coronavirus relief bill tests narrow Democratic majority Some Republicans say proxy voting gives advantage to Democrats Gun violence prevention groups optimistic background check legislation can pass this Congress MORE now has a mountain of criticism after the party saw its majority reduced. The unchanging nature of Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip James Clyburn have led to calls for new blood and political ideas for House Democrats to regain their strength before the next midterm election. All three of these leaders are over 80 and have served almost two decades together in Congress.

Republicans have historically lost seats in midterm races, but many Democrats on the bubble are certain to face trouble from several gerrymandered districts. Democrats who seek change should take a careful gander across the aisle. Republicans have taken the opposite approach, willing to toss their leaders overboard at the drop of a hat.

Such backbiting has not served the party well. Republicans are on their fourth leader under Pelosi. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is lauded for the electoral gains of the party, but he cannot feel secure in his position. After all, five years ago, members rose up to deny him the gavel.


Republicans have had three speakers in this century. Dennis Hastert, later disgraced in scandal, did not seek reelection after the party lost control of the House. John Boehner, who spent years in his rise to the top, resigned in the middle of his term over a coup attempt. Paul Ryan took the job for the rest of that term and for the first two years of President Trump. The tenure of Ryan was one of the five shortest since the 1880s.

Republicans of the later 20th century were also swift to remove their leaders. Newt Gingrich, who returned the Republicans to power in the House after 40 years, faced a coup attempt led in part by Boehner, and Gingrich was effectively ousted after two terms. Before him, nearly every Republican leader since the 1950s has faced a revolt.

Joseph Martin was kicked out by Charles Halleck, who himself was tossed overboard by Gerald Ford, who survived long enough to be named vice president, but his successor John Rhodes did not run for another term under threat of a revolt. The next in the line, Robert Michel, bowed out after under the knowledge that Gingrich would run.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been conservative. Every speaker or minority leader has been succeeded by the elected second in command since the 1930s. When the party lost its majority, as happened to Pelosi in 2010, the leaders were all retained. Save for Speaker James Wright, who resigned under an ethical cloud, no speaker or minority leader of the Democrats has faced a real revolt or even a serious election challenge.

It is not clear what the overall effect of having House leaders who do not need to be as concerned for swift removals. One effect could be difficulty in passing legislation. While Democrats under Pelosi were in power with a president of their party for only a session of two years, they had success with the Affordable Care Act, the greatest legislative achievement of the party since the 1960s. Republicans in recent years arguably do not have the same level of legislative achievement, despite having control of the executive branch and Congress for more than six years since 2000.

Democrats might be looking beyond Pelosi and hoping for what they imagine is a more dynamic leader. But the intramural battles that have haunted Republicans for so many decades should serve as a cautionary tale. Overturning the party structure can lead to eras of chaos.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who is focused on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform based at Wagner College.