In choosing their party leader on Wednesday, election-shocked Democrats in the House voted for decades of experience over youthful zeal. For tactical prowess and fundraising muscle over a backbencher. For West Coast over Middle America.
They voted to continue with their leader of 14 years, Nancy Pelosi of California, rather than go with her last-minute opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio.
But is that what deflated Democrats need?
About a third of the caucus didn’t think so, sending a loud message of change to their leadership in Congress and nationally: Democrats must get back to their roots, to working-class Americans, with a clear economic message that the party is in their corner. They must not remain a party of the coasts, or of the elite.
“We talk more about free-range chickens than we do about working people,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D) of Massachusetts. The congressman was among 63 House Democrats who backed Representative Ryan for the top job of minority leader; 134 voted for Representative Pelosi.
Marathon caucus meeting
Democrats are reeling from their loss of the White House. In Congress, they made gains, but not as much as they expected, leaving both houses in the control of Republicans. A period of soul searching is going on as they examine the reasons for their losses and elect leaders who they hope can move the party forward.
In Congress, Democrats have elected familiar faces: Pelosi in the House and Sen. Charles Schumer of New York as the new minority leader in the Senate. One is from San Francisco, the other from Brooklyn. Both recognize, however, that Democrats did not have a clear enough economic message in November.
“Never again will we have an election where there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind where the Democrats are when it comes to America’s working families,” Pelosi said on Wednesday, breaking from a marathon caucus election meeting to speak briefly with reporters.
It was a point driven home by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) of Ohio, the former head of the Black Congressional Caucus. She said Democrats rely too much on consultants who don’t know nearly as much as the people running in their own districts.
Representative Fudge, a backer of Ryan's long-shot leadership bid, told reporters that she won her seat because she addresses “pocketbook” issues, not social issues.
Although he was disappointed that he didn't succeed, Ryan expressed satisfaction with the strong support he received and was confident that his voice has been heard. “The party is better off” for having this family conversation, he said, and added that his backers would huddle soon to figure out next steps and press for caucus reforms.
'Warning for the leadership'
Ryan’s challenge “is a warning for the leadership,” says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University in Washington. They need to think about the next generation and the generation after that, taking them into account for committee assignments and task forces, he says.
The visibility of leadership and opportunity to advance are important because the House fields the farm team for the Senate, governorships, and even the White House.
“All parties need to have a way for young talent to get on an escalator and come up and make leaders,” says Mr. Thurber.
The House Democrats’ top three leaders are all in their 70s. Committee leadership positions are tightly controlled. Seniority helps. So does fundraising ability. But those leaders haven't been able to help the party make up the ground they lost in the Republican wave of 2010, when Democrats lost more than 60 seats.
Democrats have lost more than 900 seats in state legislatures during President Obama’s tenure and hold only 18 governorships. The losses are important not only because they may limit the supply of experienced White House candidates, but because of the looming 2020 census. That’s when a new population count leads to the redrawing of congressional districts. If Republicans continue to dominate state houses, they will continue to hold the pen for district drawing.
Ryan, who was first elected to Congress in 2002, has never been on the leadership track. It was only after his home county in Ohio went for Donald Trump – the first time it backed a Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972 – that he decided to step up. He told reporters he has “bit his tongue” over election losses in the past. He’s not doing that any more.
“If the message for the Democrats now is about working-class people that are white, black, brown, gay, straight, middle class, poor, man, woman – if that’s our focus, we will right this ship,” he said.
The message is the main thing, agrees Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, also of Ohio. But the Democratic leadership needs to recommit to the geographic center of the country. The coasts are favored in leadership and committee assignments, says Representative Kaptur.
In 2012, she lost out to a New Yorker as the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee – even though Kaptur had more seniority. She says that in an internal meeting about the position, she was asked whether she would pay her dues and pay them on time, not about her experience.
She applauded Ryan’s challenge, although she had committed early to Pelosi. “It’s trying to sensitize the leadership that our part of the United States is missing.”
When Hillary Clinton came to Kaptur's city of Toledo, and spoke against the backdrop of the Amtrak station, Kaptur was shocked that Mrs. Clinton failed to provide a detailed plan for infrastructure or for bringing jobs to the state – key issues for her state.
"It was astounding," she said. "Our region was not embraced well by what was said by our leading candidate."
Pelosi backers: We need a 'strong captain'
But while Ryan's backers saw a need for an insurgency that would resonate with working-class voters, others argued for a steady hand on the helm as Democrats emerge from the beating of 2016.
“We need someone with extensive experience to pull us together right now,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland.
“This is a storm,” he said. “You’ve got to have a strong captain to get through it.”
Representative Cummings and others who backed Pelosi describe her as experienced, smart, and able to hold a diverse caucus together. From 2007-11, she was the first woman speaker of the House – a historic achievement. In that position she steered her caucus through the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform.
Added Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia, “we need stability and we need to regroup.” That’s not to discount the significance of the challenge from the Ohio congressman to Pelosi’s leadership, he said. “We need to open up opportunity for all members.”