The Other McCain

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Heckuva Job, Nancy Pelosi: Manager of the Decline of the Democratic Party

Posted on | November 18, 2022 | Comments Off on Heckuva Job, Nancy Pelosi: Manager of the Decline of the Democratic Party

It was perhaps predictable, once it became clear that Republicans had won a majority in the House of Representatives, that Nancy Pelosi would resign from the Democratic leadership in the House. She’s 82 years old, after all, but if Democrats had managed to keep their majority, she probably wouldn’t have turned over the Speaker’s gavel. The difference between being Speaker and House Minority Leader is night and day. Unlike the Senate, where the filibuster grants a certain amount of power to the minority, the majority in the House calls all the shots, and the minority gets zero, zilch, nada. Pelosi has served two separate four-year terms as House Speaker, first after the 2006 midterms, before losing the majority in the 2010 midterms. Republicans then held the House majority for eight years before Democrats recaptured the Speaker’s gavel for Pelosi in the 2018 midterms, only to have it slip from their grasp again this year. Democrats would have been smart to dump Pelosi after 2010, when she was already a septuagenarian, but despite her general ineptitude, she’s good at one thing, i.e., bossing around her fellow Democrats, and that was enough to keep her in power another 12 years.

How did she get there? How did this woman, the daughter of a Baltimore party boss, who became the epitome of a “San Francisco liberal,” end up with so much power? Well, does the name David Bonior ring a bell? How about Dick Gephardt? And does anyone still remember Tom Foley?

Tom Foley, a Democrat from Washington State, became Speaker of the House in 1989 because his predecessor, Jim Wright of Texas, had resigned amid an ethics scandal. At the time, Foley had already been in Congress more than 20 years, during which time Democrats had always been in the majority. In fact, a Republican hadn’t been Speaker of the House since Joseph Martin turned the gavel over to Sam Rayburn after the 1954 midterms. Democrats losing their majority was simply unthinkable, and hubris certainly played a role in the Democrats’ 1994 midterm wipeout that not only saw Newt Gingrich lead the GOP to a historic victory, but also saw Foley defeated in his own reelection bid, as he lost to Republican challenger George Nethercutt by a 4,000-vote margin. Before the 1994 midterms, Washington State’s House delegation was eight Democrats and one Republican; after 1994, it was seven Republicans and two Democrats. Heckuva job, Tom!

Taking over as leader of congressional Democrats was Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who had much higher ambitions. First elected to Congress in 1976, he sought the 1988 presidential nomination, but ultimately lost to Mike Dukakis. However, the campaign raised Gephardt’s national profile and helped him become the No. 2 man in the House Democratic leadership under Foley. When Foley got beat, Gephardt became the minority leader, a position he held for the next nine years, as Republicans maintained their majority control. After 2002, however, Gephardt decided to try another run for the White House, ultimately losing to John Kerry. (It says a lot about Gephardt that he lost to a couple of losers like Dukakis and Kerry.) Gephardt didn’t seek reelection to Congress in 2004. When he was first elected in 1976, Missouri’s congressional delegation was eight Democrats and two Republicans. When Gephart left office, Missouri’s congressional delegation was five Republicans and four Democrats. Are you noticing a trend here?

Say hello to David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat who was first elected to Congress in 1976, the same year Gephardt was elected. In 1987, Bonior became deputy whip of the Democratic caucus, and became whip in 1990. When Republicans won the majority in 1994, Bonior decided to make himself a full-time nuisance, filing 75 ethics charges against Speaker Newt Gingrich. This did nothing to help Democrats win back the House, however, and after the 2000 census, redistricting put Bonior into a new district where his reelection was uncertain. Bonior decided to throw his hat in the ring as a candidate for governor of Michigan, but lost the Democratic primary to Jennifer Granholm by a 20-point margin. When Bonior was first elected to Congress in 1976, Michigan had 19 House seats, 11 Democrats and eight Republicans. When Bonior left office, Michigan had 15 House seats, nine Republicans and six Democrats.

Could the trend be any clearer? All of these Democratic leaders saw their party’s fortunes decline during their tenure in Congress, and it was this general trend of decline that led to Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker. She was first elected to Congress in 1986 — way back when Tip O’Neill was still Speaker of the House — and in 2002, when Bonior resigned the post of Democratic whip, Pelosi got that job. Pelosi was catapulted to minority leader a year later, when Gephardt, contemplating his 2004 presidential bid, stepped aside. For nearly 20 years, then, Pelosi has been the top Democrat in the House, and with what result?

When she was first elected in 1986, there were 258 Democrats and 177 Republicans in the House. The results of this month’s midterms are still not final, but when Congress convenes again in January, it appears there will be 221 Republicans and 214 Democrats in the House. Democrats will be right back to the minority status they were in when Gephardt resigned as leader in 2003 and Pelosi took over. Heckuva job, Nancy!



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