House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi faces House Democrats Wednesday in a test of her political power.
The lead-up to Wednesday’s internal vote for speaker has been marked by heavily covered intra-party squabbles. A swath of vocal Democrats – ranging from Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., to Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., to Tim Ryan, D-Ohio – want someone else.
But despite the drama, Democrats will likely vote to tap Pelosi as their choice for speaker. The bigger test comes when the new Congress starts in January, and the California Democrat must win a floor vote – from members of both parties, Republicans and anti-Nancy freshman Democrats among them.
Yet no other Democrat, as of now, is challenging Pelosi for the slot. And some Democrats who vowed to oppose her have since softened that position.
“Know your power,” Pelosi often says, the title of her 2008 book.
Pelosi usually does. No one is as talented a vote counter as the San Francisco Democrat, who is able to gauge precisely where the political barometer stands. Moreover, Pelosi is known to have said that political power is not granted. It is taken.
And so, we will watch as Nancy Pelosi walks this prospective narrow path to power this week. She doesn’t have the speakership nailed down just yet. But her return to power is more advanced than where it stood just a few days ago.
All successful political leaders “know their power” and discern where they stand with their constituencies.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., banked political power for years until he helped engineer a return to the majority by Republicans in 1994. House Republicans rewarded Gingrich with the speakership. But Gingrich’s power quickly waned. As Pelosi says, “know your power.” Gingrich realized he may face an insurrection in 1998 after the GOP nearly lost control of the House. Gingrich stepped aside as speaker.
Status and position don’t always reflect where power resides on Capitol Hill. The late Sen. Richard Russell, D-Ga., never held the positions of Senate majority or minority leader. The Senate moved through a period of relatively weak majority leaders, because, toiling behind the scenes was Richard Russell. Russell’s command of the Senate was such that he didn’t need to become majority or minority leader. Russell “knew” his power. Why bother with the responsibility if you possess the political juice you need?
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., didn’t have the votes to succeed former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as speaker in 2015. McCarthy unexpectedly dropped his bid just minutes before an internal House Republican Conference vote to tap the next speaker. McCarthy “knew his power.”
Meantime, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., claimed for years he had little interest in becoming speaker. Ryan even published a statement moments after McCarthy stepped aside, expressing he had no intention in running for speaker.
But over a two-week period, GOP colleagues cajoled Ryan to seek the speakership. Ryan only truly “knew” his power until Republican colleagues plowed the road for him – and the Wisconsin Republican realized there was no one else who could ever command the votes on the floor.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., succeeded former Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., when the latter retired in early 2017. Reid announced his intentions to step aside about a year-and-a-half prior. There was a brief debate about whether longtime Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., might attempt to succeed Reid. But it was just a conversation. Schumer “knew his power” and leapfrogged Durbin, nailing down his support months ahead of the leadership election.
Want to know why no one is formally challenging Pelosi; House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in his bid for majority leader; and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., in his quest for majority whip? Very simple. Rank-and-file House Democrats also “know” their power.” It’s limited. Someone would challenge one or all three of the House’s top Democrats if there was a pathway to prevail. But there isn’t anyone lined up right now. They know they’d lose.
The path to power includes knowing when to challenge someone – and when not to do so.
House Republicans bounced John Boehner from the fourth-highest GOP leadership post in 1998. Many of Boehner’s acolytes encouraged him to run to succeed former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, when he retried a few years later. But the time wasn’t right for Boehner. Then former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, found himself in ethical and criminal trouble and resigned. Boehner, then-House Majority Whip and current Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and former Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., all ran to succeed DeLay. Boehner prevailed over Blunt in an upset and later matriculated to the speakership.
But it was never guaranteed that Boehner would get a shot to run for leader once he was shown the door in late 1998.
There is some fortune involved in all of this.
Now by the same token, Boehner also knew his power when he announced his resignation in the fall of 2015. Boehner had been trying to escape Congress for a couple of years. But former House majority leader and likely Boehner successor Eric Cantor, R-Va., unexpectedly lost his primary in 2014. House Freedom Caucus members began making noise about “no confidence” votes for Boehner – even though no immediate successor existed. So Boehner cashed it in, briefly leaving a power vacuum in the House.
It’s still not clear precisely how Pelosi scores an outright majority of all House members voting on the floor for speaker on Jan. 3. Barring unforeseen circumstances, she’ll easily win the Democratic Caucus election Wednesday. That vote will also serve as a political rain gauge to show how many votes Pelosi must commandeer before January to win the speakership … and know her power.