As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said herself, quoting scripture on the House floor Thursday: “For everything there is a season — a time for every purpose under heaven.”
For Pelosi, the season to be leader of House Democrats has passed. She made the right decision this week to step away from leadership in January, when a new Republican majority will take over the House, and the right — even generous — decision to stay in Congress for now. She’ll continue to represent San Francisco while serving as an invaluable source of guidance and resolve for the next generation of House Democratic leaders.
Pelosi’s decision to step aside is also important for sending the message that politicians can keep their promises. She now fulfills a pledge she made in 2018.
At 82, Pelosi is a historic figure, of course: the first female House speaker and one of the strongest speakers, if not the strongest, that America has ever seen. She has endured through the tea party movement and the Trump era, a recession, a pandemic, a violent coup attempt at the Capitol and a brutal hammer attack on her husband apparently inspired by irrational hatred of her.
“She has been the steady hand on the gavel during some of the most turbulent times the nation has ever confronted,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, chair of the Democratic Caucus and Pelosi’s likely successor.
But more than surviving and enduring, she has prevailed — sometimes when the odds seemed longest. Democrats have a reputation for fretful insecurity, also known as bed-wetting. Pelosi is the opposite. She’s typically positive, sometimes irrationally so, but her optimism and confidence send “yes we can” messages that raise morale and often pay off.
Yet as a minority in a GOP-run House, Democrats won’t be able to rack up accomplishments like they did in the last two years. Beyond that, it’s past time for a leadership shift. Younger Democrats — and by that we’re talking anyone younger than Pelosi and her two 80-something lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn — have been waiting forever to rise in the ranks. As Punchbowl News put it, “Generations of ambitious Democrats have come and gone from the House, stifled under a leadership that has been in place for two decades.”
Last week, with Republicans headed for a narrow House majority rather than a crushing victory, President Joe Biden told Pelosi, “I hope you stick,” Politico reported. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer felt the same way: “I hope she does, I love her,” he said.
But tangling with a Republican speaker and a majority out for investigative blood could not have been a tempting prospect, especially for a results-oriented leader whose policy goals will now be largely and perhaps entirely unattainable — and for a wife whose husband faces a long recovery from serious injuries.
There were calls for Pelosi to step aside in 2010 when Democrats lost 60 House seats — a true wipeout. “When you have the largest turnover since 1948, then it’s time to shake things up,” then-Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said at the time. Another Blue Dog, Heath Shuler, said he’d run against Pelosi for minority leader. Lawmakers from New York and Oklahoma said she should resign.
She resisted those calls and held on as minority leader through eight years of House Republican majorities, as historic 2010 GOP gains in state legislatures led to new House maps that favored Republicans. Democrats finally rebounded in 2018, thanks to President Donald Trump.
It is now hard to imagine the last 20 years without Pelosi in the speaker’s chair for eight of them, an example to women and the nation of what Jeffries called “the power of possibility.” He is looking to make demographic history of his own this month. If he wins the Nov. 30 vote for Democratic leader, as expected, he’ll be the first Black leader of either party in Congress.
Jeffries and the rest of the new leaders favored to win will better reflect the party’s diversity in the House, where there are over 100 Democratic members of color, as well as in their voting coalition. When the vote is over, Democrats will most likely be looking at a team of Jeffries, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark (age 59) and California Rep. Pete Aguilar (age 43). The trio’s average age is three decades younger than the current leaders.
Pelosi’s decision to step aside is also important for sending the message that politicians can keep their promises. She now fulfills a pledge she made in 2018 in exchange for winning the votes to keep the gavel back then.
This timing also allows her to exit leadership at a high point in her career. Rather than overplay her hand and weaken history’s view of her, she is cementing a legacy of achievements on health care, climate and much more that will last long after she is gone. Pelosi has generally been able to manage her factions, from moderate to progressive, and her relationship with Biden is close. She is leaving not because she has to, but because it’s time.
The contrast with the House GOP could not be starker. Republicans in recent history have walked away from a job made impossibly difficult by party divisions and obstreperous members. John Boehner and Paul Ryan each left after years of tussling with tea party right-wingers (in Boehner’s case) and Trump and his House allies (in Ryan’s case).
The next speaker, likely to be Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, will be dealing with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; and other hardliners close to Trump, not to mention Trump himself — already a candidate for 2024. McCarthy still wants the gavel, but the GOP is hard on speakers and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to place bets on how long he lasts in the job.
Pelosi is a lot older than Boehner (65 when he resigned), Ryan (who left at 48) and the 57-year-old McCarthy. She’s even older than Biden, who turns 80 on Sunday. The president, like Pelosi, is also at a high point in his career, and I have argued that he should take the win and let a new generation compete for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. Pelosi is showing the way.