In a Functioning Democracy, Pelosi and Schumer Would Have Already Been Tossed from Democratic Leadership

Democratic Party leaders have clung to a failed centrist political strategy. It’s time to move on—by elevating progressives.

Elias Alsbergas

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the months lead­ing up to the 2017 New Zealand gen­er­al elec­tion, Labour Par­ty mem­bers were ner­vous. Their leader, Andrew Lit­tle, con­sis­tent­ly polled poor­ly. He’d risen to lead­er­ship less than three years ear­li­er, but intra-par­ty pres­sure was already build­ing for his res­ig­na­tion. Only 55 days before the gen­er­al elec­tion, Lit­tle was forced to resign due to his grow­ing unpop­u­lar­i­ty and Jacin­da Ardern was unan­i­mous­ly elect­ed leader by Labour Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment. Ardern was Labour’s Deputy Leader who out­polled her for­mer boss and, through a cam­paign high­light­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, lift­ed the par­ty from the dol­drums to over­take the lead­ing right-wing Nation­al Par­ty in the polls. That year, she led Labour to win net seats for the first time in 15 years, and lat­er became a glob­al fig­ure for her com­pas­sion­ate response to a 2019 Islam­o­pho­bic white nation­al­ist ter­ror attack, built a his­toric Labour-major­i­ty gov­ern­ment in 2020 and received inter­na­tion­al acclaim for her response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the Unit­ed States, mean­while, Nan­cy Pelosi has led the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives since 2003. She has presided over numer­ous elec­toral cat­a­stro­phes. Her opin­ion polls are almost as bad as Andrew Little’s ever were. And in ear­ly Novem­ber, her House Democ­rats actu­al­ly lost seats in an elec­tion pre­dict­ed to be a blowout, but which instead became a mul­ti-day nail-biter. 

Pelosi has now over­seen mul­ti­ple Demo­c­ra­t­ic loss­es in the House in 2004, 2010, 2016 and 2020. She has deeply under­per­formed elec­toral­ly despite demo­graph­ic trends sup­pos­ed­ly favor­able to Democ­rats since she failed to stop the Tea Par­ty shel­lack­ing” ten years ago.

In the Sen­ate, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Minor­i­ty Leader Chuck Schumer, who has nev­er served as Major­i­ty Leader, has bare­ly been able to ush­er mar­gin­al gains in the Sen­ate and, depend­ing on what hap­pens in Georgia’s two runoff races, may have failed again to win con­trol of the cham­ber this cycle. 

Both of these Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers have dis­played their inabil­i­ty to sub­stan­tive­ly stand up to Pres­i­dent Trump. Amy Coney Bar­rett eas­i­ly won con­fir­ma­tion to the Supreme Court, and she in fact gained pop­u­lar­i­ty in the process after Schumer declined to pur­sue any tac­tics laid out in a Capi­tol Hill memo detail­ing var­i­ous ways that Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers can try to block a nom­i­na­tion.” Trump’s tax returns were only made par­tial­ly pub­lic through the New York Times’ jour­nal­ism, despite Pelosi con­trol­ling a cham­ber with sub­poe­na pow­er for two years. Accord­ing to the Revolv­ing Door Project, Pelosi dis­played a lack of seri­ous­ness” on exec­u­tive over­sight for two years, allow­ing the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to run amok in the mean­time. Regard­less, Pelosi and Schumer are set to con­trol the 2021 Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­isla­tive agen­da and direct vast flows of par­ty money.

Pelosi has failed at the most fun­da­men­tal task of House par­ty lead­er­ship: win­ning House elec­tions. And yet calls for her oust­ing, and of oust­ing failed Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship in gen­er­al, are often con­sid­ered by cen­trist, cor­po­rate Democ­rats as dan­ger­ous to par­ty uni­ty.” This would puz­zle denizens of oth­er lib­er­al democ­ra­cies, where par­ty lead­ers are rou­tine­ly sacked when elec­tion results aren’t up to snuff. 

In Europe, only polit­i­cal win­ners are typ­i­cal­ly allowed to stick around. Think of Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel, who has kept her Chris­t­ian Democ­rats in pow­er for the last 15 years. In the UK, the aver­age oppo­si­tion leader stands for just a sin­gle gen­er­al elec­tion before they are either replaced or assume power. 

Amer­i­can par­ty pol­i­tics, espe­cial­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pol­i­tics, suf­fers from a predilec­tion for losers that would con­fuse any back­bench MP in the UK. Nonethe­less, dom­i­na­tion by long­time par­ty lead­ers who over­see and con­tribute to embar­rass­ing elec­toral defeats in Amer­i­ca con­tin­ues. This rais­es the ques­tion: How long can a par­ty con­tin­ue to hem­or­rhage its base con­stituen­cies and fum­ble emi­nent­ly winnable elec­tions before lead­er­ship is tossed?

Pelosi and Schumer sim­ply can­not claim they’re not respon­si­ble for Con­gres­sion­al loss­es. Pelosi has been the avatar of House Democ­rats for near­ly two decades, much to the cha­grin of Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates try­ing to dis­tance them­selves from Repub­li­can mes­sag­ing link­ing them to her tox­ic” rep­u­ta­tion. This year, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives has effec­tive­ly been a one-woman leg­is­la­ture as Pelosi monop­o­lized author­i­ty over stim­u­lus talks and leg­is­la­tion, leav­ing oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tives — espe­cial­ly pro­gres­sives — out in the cold. As such, Pelosi is respon­si­ble for how the par­ty is viewed by the pub­lic, as reflect­ed in the recent dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion results. 

For his part, Schumer per­son­al­ly select­ed bat­tle­ground Sen­ate can­di­dates who round­ly failed to win this cycle. Their fail­ures at the nation­al lev­el led to Repub­li­cans win­ning a pro­ject­ed 78 state leg­is­la­ture seats in the cru­cial year con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts will be redrawn. As lead­ers of the par­ty, Pelosi and Schumer must shoul­der the blame for the Democ­rats’ lack­lus­ter performance. 

More­over, as per­son­al fig­ure­heads, Speak­er Pelosi and Sen­ate Minor­i­ty Leader Schumer are remark­ably unpop­u­lar. Real­Clear­Pol­i­tics finds that Pelosi and Schumer have aver­age favor­a­bil­i­ty rat­ings of 36 per­cent and 31 per­cent, respec­tive­ly. Mean­while, a leader like Bernie Sanders stands as the most pop­u­lar active Demo­c­ra­t­ic politi­cian in the coun­try (though he iden­ti­fies as an inde­pen­dent), approved of by 51 per­cent of Americans.

If Democ­rats want to win, com­mon sense dic­tates that they should install broad­ly pop­u­lar fig­ures in lead­er­ship posi­tions. Ardern, who reversed Labour’s decline in New Zealand, became leader because she con­sis­tent­ly polled high­er than her boss did. If the equiv­a­lent prin­ci­ple was applied in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, and Democ­rats fol­lowed the data, they would nom­i­nate some­one like Bernie Sanders whose pol­i­cy plat­form is as remark­ably pop­u­lar as he is.

The issues run deep­er than rank pop­u­lar­i­ty, how­ev­er. The Democ­rats’ lack of results proves that what­ev­er roadmap they have to polit­i­cal vic­to­ry is wrong. 

Ahead of the 2016 elec­tion, Schumer infa­mous­ly declared, For every blue-col­lar Demo­c­rat we lose in west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, we will pick up two mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans in the sub­urbs in Philadel­phia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illi­nois and Wis­con­sin.” This was, to put it mild­ly, not what hap­pened in 2016. And this year, though Biden eked out the slimmest pos­si­ble vic­to­ry mar­gins in states like Geor­gia and Penn­syl­va­nia — pow­ered par­tial­ly by a sub­ur­ban shift — the same can­not be said for Schumer’s hand-picked can­di­dates who ran behind Biden.

Schumer-recruit­ed Sen­ate can­di­date Sara Gideon blew a big lead in Maine despite his per­son­al sup­port. While Biden eas­i­ly car­ried the state, Gideon lost by 8 points after fol­low­ing Schumer’s cen­trist strat­e­gy of back­ing the pub­lic option over Medicare for All and out­lin­ing cli­mate goals that fall short of the Green New Deal” accord­ing to Ban­gor Dai­ly News. Jaime Har­ri­son under­per­formed Biden in South Car­oli­na despite his mas­sive war chest and sup­port from par­ty lead­er­ship after he declined to back some of the more pro­gres­sive pro­pos­als from mem­bers of his own par­ty” as the Post and Couri­er put it.

Some of the only can­di­dates who reject­ed this failed strat­e­gy faced direct oppo­si­tion from Pelosi and Schumer. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (DCCC), which Democ­rats are required to fund if they want to keep their com­mit­tee appoint­ments, announced that polit­i­cal con­sul­tants or experts who dared to work for pro­gres­sive pri­ma­ry chal­lengers would be black­list­ed,” scar­ing polit­i­cal vet­er­ans away from many fresh-faced can­di­dates. Pelosi per­son­al­ly fundraised for Texas Rep. Hen­ry Cuel­lar when pro­gres­sive Jes­si­ca Cis­neros chal­lenged him in this year’s pri­ma­ry, despite his anti-choice record on abor­tion and an out­pour­ing of Koch cash sup­port­ing him.

In a remark­able dis­play of poor polit­i­cal instincts, Schumer per­son­al­ly recruit­ed Ken­tucky Sen­ate can­di­date Amy McGrath and aid­ed her pri­ma­ry cam­paign against pro­gres­sive chal­lenger Charles Book­er. Her straight-down-the-mid­dle pol­i­tics led McGrath to light almost $100 mil­lion dol­lars on fire when she lost to Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell by 20 points, but not before cut­ting a pro-Trump ad in her failed bid to appeal to moderates. 

The Democ­rats again failed to flip major­i­ty-minor­i­ty Repub­li­can seats like Texas’s Dis­trict 23 despite nation­al par­ty endorse­ments, cul­mi­nat­ing in an over­all loss among near­ly every demo­graph­ic except white men. Nation­al lead­er­ship pressed their thumb on the scale for cen­trists, even as the Pelosi-appoint­ed CARES Act Over­sight Chair­woman, Don­na Sha­lala, lost her Mia­mi-Dade coun­ty seat in part for fail­ing to pro­vide any sub­stan­tive over­sight to the largest cor­po­rate bailout pack­age in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, while vot­ers in her state passed a $15 min­i­mum wage bal­lot ini­tia­tive by huge margins. 

Pelosi and Schumer dam polit­i­cal move­ments that threat­en the hege­mo­ny of cor­po­rate Democ­rats and their per­son­al con­trol over the par­ty, all the while alien­at­ing the very con­stituen­cies of col­or their fel­low Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers have long claimed will, some­day, pro­pel the par­ty to victory. 

Their inabil­i­ty to reverse course in the face of so many loss­es sug­gests that they would rather go down with the ship than give the wheel over to the activist base of the par­ty. As long­time polit­i­cal writer Jon Schwartz says of the iron law of insti­tu­tions, peo­ple who con­trol institutions…would rather the insti­tu­tion fail’ while they remain in pow­er” than give it up and win.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic leadership’s long grip over the par­ty would shock any oth­er lib­er­al democ­ra­cy. Rank-and-file Demo­c­ra­t­ic mem­bers of Con­gress should demand polit­i­cal account­abil­i­ty, just like any oth­er par­ty around the world would. Their lead­ers’ elec­toral strat­e­gy has failed on its own terms, unable to make gains in red-states and large­ly inca­pable of stop­ping the bleed­ing in pur­ple states like Ohio and Florida. 

It’s past time to replace failed lead­ers with pop­u­lar ones will­ing to take the chance of actu­al­ly fol­low­ing the par­ty base’s pro­gres­sive val­ues — because the safe” cen­trist strat­e­gy has proven entire­ly too dangerous. 

In light of the recent elec­tion results, some House Democ­rats are report­ed­ly con­sid­er­ing throw­ing their sup­port behind a chal­lenger to Speak­er Pelosi. They should choose a leader who knows bet­ter than to dis­miss pop­u­lar pol­i­cy like the Green New Deal, or as Pelosi dubbed it, the green dream or what­ev­er they call it.” As Ardern’s suc­cess in New Zealand shows, it’s a good strat­e­gy to nom­i­nate well-liked fig­ures who sup­port majori­tar­i­an poli­cies that mate­ri­al­ly ben­e­fit the many, not the few. It’s also smart politics. 

Elias Als­ber­gas is a for­mer union orga­niz­er and researcher who works to expose con­flicts of inter­est in gov­ern­ment at the Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Pol­i­cy Research’s Revolv­ing Door Project. Fol­low him on twit­ter @EAlsbergas

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