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Pelosi to Stand Down

Reportedly, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) went home on Wednesday night with drafts of two speeches, one whose message was "I'm staying" and the other whose message was "I'm stepping down." At some point, she chose the latter, and so yesterday she announced that she would not run for another term as the leader of House Democrats.

This does not mean that Pelosi is going to exit stage right, rarely to be seen again, the way that her immediate predecessors have. She's going to keep her seat in the House for now. And though she'll technically be a backbencher with no official title other than "Representative," she is going to help shepherd in the next generation of House Democratic leadership. She'll probably hang on one more term, and then leave the House entirely, thereafter serving as an honored Democratic elder, and a source of political advice, as was the case with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid before he passed away.

Pelosi's two most important lieutenants, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), will also step down. Hoyer is also going to be a backbencher, while Clyburn is toying with pursuing a slightly less substantial demotion, to chair of the House Democratic Conference. Whatever Clyburn does, the top positions in House Democratic leadership will no longer be occupied by octogenarians, clearing the way for folks who were born, say, after World War II ended. Maybe even folks who were born after the Vietnam War ended.

The odds-on favorite to take over as the leader of House Democrats is New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (who, for the record, was born just before the end of the Vietnam War). Pelosi has thrown her support behind him, which should guarantee the support of most of the moderates. And because Jeffries is a person of color and is fairly lefty, he should get the support of most of the progressives. It is surely instructive that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is quite ambitious and who was eyeing the top job, has already withdrawn his name from consideration. He's going to take a shot at Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) seat instead.

We know that many readers are interested in an early assessment of where Pelosi ranks among the 54 people who have served as Speaker of the House. To start that discussion, here's our rundown of the five greatest speakers, in our view:

  1. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D; 1977-87): The Democrats have been moving leftward for two generations. The Republicans have been moving rightward for three generations. O'Neill held the Speaker's gavel when the current enormous gap between parties was just becoming visible. He nonetheless demanded, and got, civility from his colleagues in the House. He was happy to bloviate during the day, and to have Republicans (particularly Ronald Reagan) bloviate right back, and then to head over to the White House or the Minority Leader's office for a beer and some negotiations. That way, the voters would hear what they wanted to hear, but things would still get done. O'Neill and Reagan did sometimes struggle to see eye-to-eye on domestic policy, even while remaining cordial, but they worked quite well together on foreign policy issues, including winning the Cold War.

  2. Joseph Gurney Cannon (R; 1903-11): He is almost certainly the most powerful Speaker in history. In his time, the same person served as Speaker and as Chair of the House Rules Committee, and so Cannon effectively made his own rules. Further, there wasn't really a seniority system yet in his time, so he got to decide on every committee chair and every committee member. Although he was less liberal than President Theodore Roosevelt, Cannon nonetheless shepherded much key Square Deal legislation through the House, including the Pure Food and Drug Act, legislation that curbed the power of railroads and legislation that gave teeth to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

  3. John W. McCormack (D; 1962-71): The most substantial legislative program in American history is the New Deal, and so it's a little strange that no New Deal-era Speaker is on this list. However, the speakership changed hands four times in the New Deal years. Further, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as his own chief lobbyist. So, it's tough to give Top-5 credit to any of the Speakers of the 1930s. On the other hand, John McCormack was Speaker for the entirety of the Great Society years. And while it's true that Lyndon B. Johnson also served as his own chief lobbyist, it's also true that a president only has so much time, and the LBJ tended to do more arm-twisting in the Senate, since that is where he served as Majority Leader. So, McCormack deserves some fair amount of credit for the civil rights and social welfare legislation that passed Congress in the 1960s. He did support the Vietnam War, however, so he gets debited for that, just as LBJ does.

  4. Sam Rayburn (D; 1940-47, 1949-53, 1955-61): Rayburn is the Congressman that members still look to as a model, and is the Speaker that Speakers still aspire to be. That probably means something. He held the office longer than anyone else, and herded cats with enormous skill, often bringing together sizable bipartisan coalitions. His most important accomplishment is managing the House during World War II, and thus helping fund and operate a mobilization of unprecedented magnitude. Rayburn also worked well with moderate Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, and backed much of Ike's legislative agenda, including the Interstate Highway Act. He was mindful of the need to cultivate new talent, and so played a big role in nurturing the careers of McCormack and LBJ, among others.

  5. Henry Clay (D-R, N-R, W; 1811-14, 1815-20, 1823-25): When Clay was first elected to the House, the speakership was mostly ceremonial. It was seen as a minor honor at best, and an irritating burden at worst, which is why he was given the job on his very first day in Washington. He saw the potential in the post, however, and effectively invented the job as it is now understood, asserting his primacy in the House and his right to control committee memberships. In that way, he's like George Washington—taking a vaguely defined job and fleshing it out into something substantive and important. Clay also led the nation through several crises, most notably the one prompted by the admission of Missouri, which he helped resolve with the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

So, where does Pelosi slot in here? It's too early to say for certain, though we suspect her reputation is going to rise sharply in early 2023, as everyone is treated to an object lesson in how difficult it really is to lead an unruly caucus.

The are two issues that might be raised with Pelosi's record. The first is that she did not oversee the passage of as much important legislation as some of the other folks on this list. She was Speaker for Obamacare, of course, and for the legislation that Joe Biden has signed into law, but that doesn't fully compare with, for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The other issue is that she gave too little attention to grooming the next generation of Democratic leadership. Undoubtedly, she very much liked working with Hoyer and Clyburn, but one of them should have been rotated out for Jeffries several years ago.

There are also some pretty big feathers in Pelosi's cap. She did handle some very important legislation. And she did it at a time when partisanship was very intense and when a Speaker had little room for error. Yes, a Rayburn or a McCormack had some serious cat-herding skills, but they also had huge Democratic majorities and Republican members who were willing to cross the aisle on a semi-regular basis. Pelosi never had those things. In addition, she was a victim of withering attacks, often explicitly or implicitly rooted in sexism, throughout her public career. Her 53 predecessors never dealt with sexism, and most or all of them were not the target of an absolutely vicious political-media complex determined to take them down.

Our sense, at this still-early date, is that she probably slots in at #3, above McCormack and below Rayburn. But we could be persuaded that she's #2 or #4. And future events certainly could cause us to revise that ranking. (Z)

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