If Democrats truly want to reboot their battered brand, they need to break with the past. They could start by cleaning House and dumping Nancy Pelosi.
Granted, no House minority leader has been overthrown since 1964, but dire times call for dramatic measures. Fairly or not, Pelosi is widely viewed — in the heartland, between the two cosmopolitan coasts — as a rich San Francisco liberal and consummate Washington insider, the kind of Democrat who can’t relate to the working-class voters who gravitated to Donald Trump.
Republicans have spent tens of millions of ad dollars hanging those labels on Pelosi — $65 million in the 2010 tea party midterms alone — and their efforts have paid off. Since 2009, when she began her brief stint as House speaker, Democrats have lost 60 House seats. Currently mired in the minority, she now presides over the smallest Democratic contingent since 1929.
If the definition of insanity is doing the same stuff over and over and expecting different results, then the House Democrats would definitely be insane to re-elect her as leader in tomorrow’s intramural contest. Instead, they should shake things up — and send a message to the electorate — by replacing her with the guy who’s challenging her, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan.
You probably haven’t heard of Tim Ryan (not to be confused with Paul), and if Pelosi prevails tomorrow as expected, you may not hear of him again (because Pelosi will not reward his impudence). But Ryan hails from a blue-collar district that broke for Trump, and his message to fellow Democrats is well worth heeding. It goes like this:
“We are not a national party right now. We need a leader who can go into [heartland] congressional districts and be able to pull Trump voters back … I’m the 43-year-old from the Rust Belt who understands what we’re doing wrong. [Working class voters] gave us the middle finger. They want us to change … If you’re a coach and your team doesn’t win, at some point you’ve got to change the coach.”
The two counties in Ryan’s Ohio district — Mahoning and Trumbull — had long been working-class Democratic strongholds, despite the loss of 19,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. President Obama easily won both counties in 2012, but Hillary Clinton barely won Mahoning this month. And she lost Trumbull, which hadn’t gone Republican since 1972. Mahoning Democratic chairman Dave Betras recently diagnosed the problem: “We’re so off message that a billionaire is talking to our voters. We have to change the narrative.”
Ryan (and his handful of House Democratic supporters) envision a new narrative that would feature a broad economic pitch to Rust Belt whites; Democrats used to be known as “the party of the working man,” and the Ryan camp says it’s essential to recoup lost ground. The Ryan camp says that Clinton couldn’t relate to those voters, Pelosi can’t relate to those voters, but Ryan (local Catholic, high school football star) intrinsically gets them.
But Ryan is directly challenging the Democratic electoral blueprint that worked for Barack Obama — the belief that a coalition of upscale white professionals and people of color would deliver victories. Clinton tried to replicate that coalition, but she fell short in the Electoral College because of the working-class surge for Trump in the Rustbelt. As Democratic National Committee member Boyd Brown of South Carolina said a week after the election, “When you have Nancy Pelosi [and] Hillary Clinton making the sale for you, that dog don’t hunt.”
Hence the big question: Should Democrats reboot by wooing those working-class voters — whom party leaders have long viewed as a shrinking share of the electorate? Or should they stick with the Obama coalition blueprint — which, after all, still managed to deliver a solid popular vote victory to a baggage-laden presidential candidate?
We’ll get the first hint of an answer tomorrow, when House Democrats vote for their ’17 leader via secret ballot. Pelosi is likely to prevail if only because the members owe her bigly. Over the years she has raised lots of money for their campaigns, and now it’s time for them to reciprocate with loyalty — despite her dismal national favorability rating, which hovers around 28 percent.
Yeah, Pelosi has raised lots of money. But who’s to say that a fresh-blood Democratic leader couldn’t do the same thing — and perhaps reach beyond the traditional Democratic donor class? It worked for Bernie Sanders.
As commentator Krystal Ball, a former Democratic congressional candidate, argued yesterday, “If you are a potential donor choosing between a variety of political and philanthropic options, how excited do you feel about giving to a Democratic party that just reinstalled the same leadership that has led us to the smallest House Democratic Caucus since 1929?” Perhaps Tim Ryan would build a party that “relies on the inspiration of regular folks rather than the generosity of Silicon Valley and the Upper East Side.”
Ryan recently remarked, “This is not fun anymore. This is not fun to wallow in the minority.” But barring a miracle tomorrow, the so-called progressive party will stick with the status quo.