In a normal political world, Nancy Pelosi’s 203-32 victory in the Democratic caucus of the House of Representatives would have assured her the speakership when the full House votes on Jan. 3. But this is no normal world we live in these days. With perhaps 235 Democrats and no alternative candidate to Pelosi announced, 32 Democrats pledge to block her for speaker by not voting when the House reconvenes. They would deny her the requisite 218 votes.
Regardless of your position on Pelosi, whom I strongly support, this is yet another step in the direction of the chaos politics that has overtaken how we govern. What will happen when the 32 abstain? No one knows. The anti-Pelosi Democrats say that someone else would emerge, but they don’t know who. Just not Pelosi. It is bad leadership on their part and sets a terrible precedent.
The strategy by Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Tim Ryan of Ohio and our own Kathleen Rice of Garden City, along with their cohorts, would alter the majority-rule standard used to select caucus leaders and replace it with a near-unanimity standard that empowers any fringe group of the majority. The group would veto the overwhelming choice of that majority and force it into a protracted cycle of wrangling, negotiating and multiple balloting until a compromise candidate acceptable to the entire caucus can be determined. That is a standard that will yield not the most effective leader, but the least unacceptable one.
In 1936, the Democratic National Convention changed the century-old rule that required a two-thirds majority to nominate the party’s candidate for president. There are many theories about why the party changed the rule to a simple majority. But it was clear that the rule requiring a two-thirds majority, which delivered nomination stalemates time and time again, also often delivered a lower-quality, yet minimally acceptable, compromise nominee. The most extreme example of a brokered convention was in 1924, when Democrats nominated dark-horse presidential candidate John W. Davis on the 103rd ballot over front-runners Al Smith and William G. McAdoo. While the supermajority rule was once employed by both national parties, and did deliver the compromise nomination of Abraham Lincoln, more often the nation was left to endure the likes of James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding.
But, in a practical sense, what these discontented House Democrats threaten to do is to supplant their own views, and perhaps their own ambitions, for the will of the majority, and deliver chaos to the House and a future of leadership battles.
Their strategy is based on the theory that once Pelosi is embarrassingly denied the 218 votes to be speaker, the Democratic caucus, made up of all 235 members, would retreat to a closed-session meeting where, according to the dissidents, any number of very qualified alternate candidates would emerge. What deals would need to be made for this new mystery leader to gain majority support? What impact would the ideological, geographic, demographic and other factions of the caucus have on the selection? How much time would the process take while the people’s business grinds to a standstill? And, what is to stop some other group of 18 angry members from effectively vetoing this newly chosen compromise leader and blocking him or her from becoming speaker, just as Pelosi was blocked?
Americans elected a House Democratic majority to do a job — not the least of which is returning order, civility and democracy to our government. If this ill-conceived leadership stalemate succeeds, Democrats would not look good in their first opportunity in years to lead the House, and given the stakes, that’s not good for our country.
Jay Jacobs is Nassau County Democratic chairman and an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee.