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Pelosi's Endgame

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Nancy Pelosi may or may not remain House minority leader when Democrats make their leadership decision at the end of November. Tim Ryan of Ohio is not a particularly promising challenger, and Pelosi probably remains popular with most of the Democratic caucus. 

But it's time for the former speaker to put in motion plans for her retirement and succession. 

Pelosi is now 76. She has been the Democratic leader since January 2003. At 14 years, that's longer than any party leader's tenure in the last 50 years.

She has also survived longer as minority leader after being speaker than anyone else since the position was formally established in 1899. Speaker Dennis Hastert resigned after Republicans lost their majority in the 2006 elections. Speaker Tom Foley was defeated for re-election to his House seat when Republicans took over after the 1994 landslide.  

Pelosi is still there, in part, because she has been good at her job, both in the majority and minority. Party leadership choices are about internal congressional politics, not electoral politics, and by all accounts she has been first rate at managing the Democratic coalition.  

But how can it be denied that new blood is needed to lead the Democrats? The Democratic whip, Steny Hoyer, is 77, and the third member of the leadership team, Jim Clyburn, is 76. It's hard to see excitement for either of them, inside or outside the House, as replacements for Pelosi. Maryland's Chris Van Hollen was long thought to be the leader-in-waiting, but he's now a senator-elect. 

Pelosi could win re-election from her safe California district for another decade or more. And that's the problem: No matter how good she has been, a calcified leadership group cuts off a pathway to advancement for the rest of the caucus. 

Even if she beats back this challenge, the caucus is now giving her notice. Whether this means she gives a public pledge to retire at the end of her next term, or a less formal understanding, she should start securing the next generation of leadership.

And assuming Hoyer and Clyburn will not succeed her, Democrats will be in uncharted waters. The last time House Democrats looked beyond their second-ranked position for their next leader was when John Nance Garner became minority leader in 1929, and then only because the previous leader had left the House and the second-ranking minority whip died. 

Democrats have had contested fights for lower leadership positions, but not for the top spot. They should be angling now to find a new leader who can represent the Democrats as well as the current leader has.

  1. Two mid-20th-century leaders, Democrat Sam Rayburn and Republican Joe Martin, lasted longer, but that was in an era when the position was less important.

  2. Sam Rayburn's leadership included two stints (1947-1948 and 1953-1954) as minority leader; in both cases, Joe Martin took over as speaker for a single term and then returned to being minority leader. Republicans ousted Martin after the 1958 elections.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net