nancy pelosi
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

The best argument for Nancy Pelosi keeping her position as the leader of the House Democrats is that she’s good at the job. She’s not perfect. She’s an awkward public speaker, for one thing. For another, the Republicans have spent so much time and money demonizing her that she’s become a divisive figure. She’s also seventy-eight years old, which is not a problem in itself but perhaps not ideal for connecting with the up and coming generations. But, in most ways, she’s extremely effective and knows how to fulfill the various roles that are expected of a leader. Her track record as speaker is almost wholly positive, and she can raise money like a true professional.

In other words, the problems with Pelosi are much more about who she is, where’s she from, and what she symbolizes than with her ability and fitness. You can make an argument that the Democrats shouldn’t be led by a San Francisco liberal or by someone of such advanced age or that it would resonate better to have someone of color or from a more rural district. But these ideas are premised on the idea that it matters less how good a person is at a job than that their mere presence in the job sends the right kinds of messages.

Regardless, she will become the next speaker of the House if the Democrats win the midterms by a wide margin and she will not if the Democrats win narrowly or (obviously) if they do not win. There are enough sitting Democrats on the record that they won’t vote for her that when combined with candidates who’ve made the same promise it’s easy to predict that she’d lose her bid in a closely divided House.

Here’s what I find interesting:

Younger House incumbents are quietly making the case for a bolder choice, and using Pelosi’s own words as part of the argument that standard seniority rules shouldn’t apply, even though Steny Hoyer has been doggedly and desperately waiting his turn for 15 years. “Nancy has been very clear in saying to all of us, ‘If I go from leadership, then Steny and [Jim] Clyburn should go too,’” a junior Democrat says. “And there is an emerging generation, the class that came into the House in 2012.”

I think the point Pelosi is making is that if she needs to go for generational reasons then it wouldn’t make sense to replace her with one of her top deputies. Jim Clyburn will also be seventy-eight next January and Steny Hoyer will be seventy-nine. If she goes, then all of them should go to be replaced with an entirely new leadership team.

That’s not a particularly loyal argument to make and I can only imagine how it is received by Steny Hoyer, but it makes a lot of sense. If the decision isn’t about merit but only symbolism, then she shouldn’t get tossed aside in favor of someone who is the same age. On the other hand, if Steny Hoyer is the best person for the job, then there’s an argument that he should be her replacement.

I guess what I’m saying is that a political party shouldn’t pick their leader based on symbolism. At some point, Pelosi may find that she’s no longer up to the rigors of the job. No one can fault her for that, since aging doesn’t discriminate. But if you want to send a message that you’re inclusive or a big tent party, you can do that in other ways. The most important thing for the leader is that they know what they’re doing, and that’s one thing you can say for certain about Nancy Pelosi.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at