Democrats laid one battle for the future of the party to rest Wednesday, selecting Nancy Pelosi as their leader in the House of Representatives for another two years. But the fight over Pelosi’s future, and the battle to lead the Democratic National Committee, have laid bare their upcoming difficulties in any effort to put a check on President-elect Donald Trump and the strong Republican majority.
Whether it’s the messenger or the message, Democrats agree that something needs to change following the stunning losses on Election Day.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and veteran member of the Congressional Black Caucus, blamed an inside-Washington mentality on recruiting candidates that led to consistent losses.
“I think we have to seriously look at this over-reliance on political consultants and media consultants and pollsters rather than going with member input,” Thompson said. “When you lose overall, in the last few years, the number of seats that you’ve lost. I think it requires us to look at what our business model is. And if you’re business model is not one that’s winning, then obviously you’d be remiss not to change it.”
As Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan walked out of his unsuccessful bid to take control of the House Democrats, he claimed victory on procedural issues and promises to focus on economic messaging he said resonates through the blue-collar districts like his that Trump won.
But when he was asked who should lead that fight for Democrats, he stumbled.
“I don’t know,” Ryan said. (He eventually caught his footing, saying: “We’re all going to participate in leading the party.”)
And even Nancy Pelosi – who had just won a grueling fight to head the Democrats for another two years – struggled to shrug off the almost one-third of Democratic lawmakers who voted against her.
“They weren’t defections,” she said when asked about the 63 Democrats who voted for Ryan. “I got two-thirds of the vote.”
The Democrats’ difficulties can be seen elsewhere on Capitol Hill as well.
Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary panels continued hammering away for an investigation of Trump’s conflicts of interest – after spending years digging into Clinton’s dealings as secretary of state – but have gained almost no ground in the Capitol, as Republican leaders have been circumspect on the issue, and likely won’t be game for investigating a president from their party.
In the Senate, the Democrats’ own decision to end the filibuster for presidential nominees, has left them largely unable to put a check on Trump’s cabinet picks, the people who will attempt to undo much of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office.
And Rep. Keith Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat and first Muslim elected to Congress, ducked and dodged reporters outside the Democratic leadership fight who were asking about his bid to take over the Democratic National Committee. While just a few feet away was Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was forced out as chairwoman of the DNC in the middle of their own party convention in Philadelphia, over allegations the party aided Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries.
Attention on Pelosi
Democrats actually won an additional six seats inside the House on Election Day, but it marked the fourth consecutive election in which they seemed hopelessly lost in the minority.
All this has led Democrats to call for some deep changes to how Pelosi runs the show, including requesting that the people searching to run the party’s campaign arm – the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee – present their game plans for vetting before the House Democrats select that leader.
As the almost 200 members of the House Democratic caucus circulated in and out of the marbled room-turned arena, they sought to downplay the deep divisions exposed by yet another losing cycle. But It’s clear that some of Pelosi’s critics feel emboldened by the significant vote – 63 members voting against her remaining in the top slot, 20 more than the last time she beat back a challenge in 2010.
“She doesn’t have to be weaker, she just has to listen to us. She has to be open to new ideas and listen to new voices, because clearly there are a lot of people inside the caucus who are dissatisfied,” Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton told CNN.
Moulton said his constituents back home have been “unanimously positive” about his role pushing for a new voice at the top of House Democratic leadership and he’s not concerned about any blowback for publicly criticizing Pelosi.
Two Democrats who supported Pelosi told CNN that Tim Ryan’s pitch to members inside the closed door meeting was a very effective speech, and was a good argument for why new messengers are needed.
But Pelosi had a broad and sharp array of supporters lay out their arguments in the meeting. “No one is a better tactician than Nancy Pelosi,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, argued, according to a Democratic aide in the room.
And Debbie Dingell, who represents the Michigan seat formerly held by veteran Democrat John Dingell, argued that Pelosi was listening to Rust Belt Democrats like her.
“I have spoken endlessly about what is happening in the Midwest. Leader Pelosi always listened and she always understood,” Dingell said, according to the Democratic aide. “We need someone who is battle tested.”
And even with the end of one fight – the other, for chair of the DNC is just gearing up – with candidate forums across the country set to pit Ellison against a host of others looking to take control of the party.
Top Republicans, meanwhile, basked in the fissures which have Democrats hamstrung at the moment. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway laughed at the fighting in a tweet sent just after Pelosi won re-election.
“What a relief. I was worried they had learned from the elections & might be competitive and cohesive again,” Conway tweeted.