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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 Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is quite ambitious and who was eyeing the top job, has already withdrawn his name from consideration.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)

Hutchinson Pondering a 2024 Presidential Run

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) appeared on CNN This Morning yesterday and shared some news: He is exploring a possible presidential bid in 2024.

It's still 2 years to the election, Hutchinson hasn't even decided yet, and even if he does toss his hat into the ring, he doesn't have much of a national profile. So why are we writing about this? Is it because semi-low-profile Arkansas governors have sometimes, in the past, surprised everyone and won the White House?

No, no it's not. It's been 30 years since Bill Clinton shocked the world, and the Arkansas governors who have launched presidential bids since then have been disasters. That list is led by Mike Huckabee, who has about as much chance of getting elected as we do. We're definitely not going to give serious attention to every Tom, Dick and Asa who says they might maybe just possibly be running for president, Arkansans or not. Trial balloons are not really newsworthy.

The reason we mention this is that Hutchinson has held Trump at arm's length through the entire MAGA era (MAGAllennium? MAGAeon? MAGAge? MAGAmare?). Although he responded with gobbeldygook when asked if he's aiming for the Never Trump lane, that is exactly what he's pondering. There are only a few credible candidates who might run in that lane, meaning that all of those who might pull it off have to think long and hard about the possibility.

And that leads us to the main point here. Recall that most Republican primaries are, in contrast to Democratic primaries, winner-take-all. If Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) jumps in, he's not likely to bow out until he's the nominee or he's mathematically eliminated. Donald Trump has already jumped in, and if he's not nominated, he might stay in even after he's mathematically eliminated. So, imagine a world in which the Trumpy majority of the Republican Party, which appears to be about 60% the Party's voters, splits fairly evenly for Trump and DeSantis. That's about 30% each, with 40% of the vote remaining. If that remaining 40% can coalesce around one candidate, whether that be Hutchinson, or Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), or Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) or someone else, then they might be able to wrest the Republican nomination away from the Trump faction.

It's a long time until the primaries, and a lot of things have to break in the right way for this to happen, but this is the likeliest way for the non-Trumpy Republicans to regain control of the Party in relatively short order. So, it's worth keeping in mind. (Z)

Lake Prepares Her Sore Loser Act

Kari Lake (R) is a Trumper, through and through. And although she's been declared the loser of the Arizona gubernatorial race, she's decided that she isn't going down without a fight. Yesterday, she announced she is building a legal team and is "collecting evidence and data" related to the election. Already, even before her loss was official, Lake asserted that the election results were phony and that there had been vast amounts of corruption.

So, what is Lake's game here? Maybe she's going through the stages of grief after her loss, and she's currently on denial. Or maybe she realizes this was her very best (and probably only) shot at the governor's mansion, and the might as well go on wild goose chases. However, our guess is that she still sees herself as a potential running mate for Donald Trump. She may even have insider information in support of that. Certainly, the former president appears to be committed to choosing a female running mate. Fighting back against a "stolen" election, and then spending the next 2 years going on Fox to complain about it afterward, is an excellent way for Lake to put herself in the catbird seat. None of the other contenders—Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD), Nikki Haley, etc.—have a "stop the steal" legal fight on their résumés.

So, our guess here is that you haven't heard the last of Kari Lake. Unfortunately. (Z)

Same-Sex Marriage Bill Is on Track

The bill that would effectively legalize same-sex marriage nationwide is sailing along. As expected, a key procedural vote was held on Wednesday, and it succeeded 62-37. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) hopes to finish the job before leaving for Thanksgiving, but Republican foot-dragging could push the final vote into December.

All 50 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Joining them were 12 Republicans; we bet you can guess some of them, while others are a bit of a surprise. Here are the 12: Susan Collins (ME), Rob Portman (OH), Thom Tillis (NC), Roy Blunt (MO), Richard Burr (NC), Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Cynthia Lummis (WY), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Mitt Romney (UT), Dan Sullivan (AK), Todd Young (IN) and Joni Ernst (IA). That's the most moderate members of the conference, the members who are retiring, and a few folks (like Lummis, Young and Ernst) who have solid libertarian streaks. Though one wonders what is going on with Rand Paul (KY), who at least claims to be a fan of small government. Maybe he's only a libertarian when we're talking about the rules for mowing one's lawn.

We should point out, incidentally, that the bill does not require states to legalize same-sex marriage. However, it does require them to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. So, deep red states can keep up the pretense that, as far as they are concerned, marriage is between a man and a woman. However, the LGBTQ+ citizens of those states can just have a destination wedding in a blue state, or can head off to Las Vegas for a weekend and get married by an Elvis impersonator. Then, their marriage is legal when they get back home. (Z)

L.A. Has a New Mayor

These days, $100 million just doesn't go as far as it once did. There was a time when that would have been more than enough to buy a mayoralty in California, or maybe even a governorship, but not anymore, it would seem. Despite investing that much of his own money (plus a few extra million on top), and reinventing himself as a resident of Pennsylvania... er, as a "Democrat," Rick Caruso has been defeated by Rep. Karen Bass (who actually is a Democrat). The Mayor-elect has 53.7% of the vote as opposed to 46.3% for her opponent with 81% reporting, and that's enough to declare her the winner.

As we have noted previously, Caruso was largely trying to re-create the success of Richard Riordan, a wealthy businessman who used his millions to mount a successful L.A. mayoral bid in 1993, and served 8 largely successful years in that office. However, he ran as the moderate Republican he was (and is), not as a newly minted Democrat. In addition, back when Riordan was first elected, people were really unhappy with the city government (especially the corrupt and overtly racist LAPD) and there was a massive "throw the bums out" sentiment. Finally, Riordan was and is a man of enormous personal integrity, whereas Caruso has some questionable business dealings in his past, and he ran some commercials this cycle that were dishonest to the point of being insulting to the viewer's intelligence. Even with $100 million to spend, Caruso would have needed to run a perfect campaign, and he just didn't do it. So, that money went for naught.

Bass becomes the first woman to be elected mayor of Los Angeles. She's also the first L.A. mayor in a long time (since Sam Yorty in the 1960s) to come to the job with experience in federal office. That could be good news for the city; normally the mayors come from the lower ranks of city leadership, such as the city council. Such people know the city well, but they tend to be well-ensconced in good ol' boys networks, and enter office well on the path to corrupt behavior. Bass has connections to the city, having represented parts of it in the state House and the U.S. House., but may be a little less beholden to certain local interests. It will be interesting to see.

Now that Bass has broken this particular glass ceiling, we wondered how many of America's ten largest cities still haven't had a woman as mayor. If you were wondering too, the answer is two: New York City and Philadelphia. About time for the Big Apple and the City of Brotherly Love to take care of business, we'd say. (Z)

This Week in Schadenfreude: "Positively Dystopian"

This feature could very quickly become "This Week in Muskenfreude," as billionaire Elon Musk continues to run Twitter into the ground. In a couple of months, it could also become "This Week in Kevinfreude," as there will undoubtedly be many foibles on the Republican side of the House, at least some of them stemming from bad behavior that deserves to be looked askance upon. So, we will have to be judicious with both of those subjects.

So although we could train our gaze on Musk yet again, we're going to write instead about the newly-reelected Ron DeSantis. In service of that reelection bid, he did a number of things that were questionable in terms of ethics, legality, or both. He is clever enough to know that if any of these things blew up in his face, it would probably be after the election, when he is considerably more bulletproof.

This week, it would appear that we have our first blow-up. At the command of DeSantis, the Florida legislature passed the "Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act." That title is bending over backwards to create the name/acronym "Stop W.O.K.E. Act." It is a patently ridiculous law that says that professors at state-funded universities must not do anything to make students "feel guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress" due to their race, color, sex or national origin. In other words, it is basically illegal to teach about slavery, or Jim Crow, or the deeds of Christopher Columbus, or the Trail of Tears because it might hurt students' feefees.

There are a great many subjects, like U.S. history, American literature, sociology, psychology and art that cannot possibly be taught while avoiding such subjects. Also, professors' labor tends to be covered by employment contracts, and often tenure rights, that cannot easily be swept aside by a pipsqueak on a modern-day crusade. Also, DeSantis undoubtedly thinks of himself as the smartest person in the room, regardless of what room it is. But there are lots of professors who are plenty smart, too. And it would be very easy to abide by the letter of the new law while utterly violating its spirit, and turning the Governor into an object of derision at the same time.

In any event, it looks like the professoriate in Florida won't have to concern themselves with this, at least for now, because yesterday Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted an injunction keeping the law from going into effect. And his ruling was absolutely scorching. Here's the opening paragraph:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," and the powers in charge of Florida's public university system have declared the State has unfettered authority to muzzle its professors in the name of "freedom." To confront certain viewpoints that offend the powers that be, the State of Florida passed the so-called "Stop W.O.K.E." Act in 2022—redubbed (in line with the State's doublespeak) the "Individual Freedom Act." The law officially bans professors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in university classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of the opposite viewpoints. Defendants argue that, under this Act, professors enjoy "academic freedom" so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the State approves. This is positively dystopian. It should go without saying that "[i]f liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

You might just be left with the impression that Judge Walker doesn't much care for the law.

We don't know what will happen with this legislation. It's pretty clearly a violation of the First Amendment, and it's also entirely impractical. So, the courts should eventually strike it down permanently, although when Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito potentially get a vote, you never know. We don't even know if DeSantis cares about the outcome; he's gotten what he wanted, which is the ability to claim that he owned the libs.

What we do know is that DeSantis went all-in on getting reelected bigly, and was successful. But now the piper will potentially have to be paid, and thanks to his growing national profile, he's also got a giant target on his back. So, he is set up to have a really rough year. As we pointed out yesterday, his inevitable nomination as the 2024 Republican presidential candidate may eventually seem not so inevitable, after all. (Z)

This Week in Freudenfreude: Profiles in Courage

We're going to talk about two different people today, and we will start with someone who is not actually one of those two people, namely Sala Burton. Born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1925, Burton and her family immigrated to the United States in 1939, for the obvious reason. After arriving in the U.S., Burton graduated high school and college, got involved in public service, got married twice and divorced once, and supported her second husband's political career. Phillip Burton served in the California Assembly for 6 years and then the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years.

Phillip was quite lefty, and was a favorite of labor unions and progressives. He nearly became the Democratic leader in the House, but was defeated by Jim Wright, 148-147. Ironically, despite his Bernie Sanders-like credentials, the thing Phillip is best known for is breaking a decades-long precedent wherein amendments to bills had been prohibited. Once that can of worms was re-opened, any member could add just about anything to any bill, and thus the modern lobbying industry was born.

Phillip died quite suddenly, of an aneurysm, in 1983. Sala ran in the special election to replace him and, as is often the case in these circumstances, she won. When she arrived in Washington, she was one of the few Jewish women ever to have served in the House. She began building her own power base, but had some trouble because many male representatives, even those of her own party, simply did not take women politicians seriously. Sala Burton undoubtedly had the determination to overcome that problem eventually, but then she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer.

The district served by the Burtons, over the course of close to 30 years, was deep blue. So, as Sala's life drew to its close, she knew she'd be replaced by a Democrat. She also knew that if she gave her endorsement to a preferred successor, that would probably allow that successor to defeat all comers in the special election that would be called. So, in her remaining months, Sala Burton took great care to evaluate potential candidates. The Representative was understandably bothered by the sexism in Washington, and so was determined to bestow her blessing on a woman candidate, and one who would be able to shake up the boys' club.

Burton's eventual pick came as something of a surprise, except for those who followed local politics very, very closely. Instead of choosing one of the women who were then serving in the state Assembly, or in various local offices, Burton went with someone who had zero experience in elective office whatsoever. The woman candidate who received Sala Burton's blessing was 47 years old and was still in the process of raising 5 children, who had been born over a span of just 6 years. At the time, there was much dismissive commentary, in part due to the lack of political experience and in part due to good old fashioned sexism. Burton, for her part, saw the "five kids in 6 years" part as a major selling point, reasoning that anyone who could handle that many kids would be more than a match for the House of Representatives (which is sometimes known for its childish behavior).

Sala Burton died on February 1, 1987. As you might imagine, her chosen successor did win the special election. It was pretty close, but the would-be Congresswoman turned out to have prodigious fundraising skills, collecting over $1 million—an unheard of sum at the time—to help her defeat Democrat Harry Britt. Following the election, Burton's protégé went to Washington and faced the same dismissive attitude that Burton had. There were only 23 women members at the time, and their male colleagues tended to see them as curiosities rather than equals. The new Representative was particularly aggravated by the shabby treatment she received from the other members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Still, Burton's reasoning proved prescient. The protégé was quite tough and, representing a safe district that easily reelected her every two years, was able to build a power base. In part, this was because times change. In part, it was because being able to raise money will get you far in Washington. And in part it was because the protégé had terrific political skills, learned in part from family members who were in politics. That woman went on to a long and successful career and is, in fact, still in the House today. We'll return to her shortly.

The second person we'd like to talk about is a fellow who was once a rising star in the Republican Party. He was a Georgetown graduate, well-connected in evangelical circles, and a high-ranking staffer of the Heritage Foundation. He also worked for several prominent Republican politicians, including Bob Dole, before accepting appointment as George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. In that job, he helped craft the verbiage that, for better or worse, sold the Iraq War to the world. That included coining the phrase "Axis of Evil," which might be the best-known catchphrase of the Bush years.

However, while this fellow continued to regard himself as a conservative, he began to wonder if the Republican Party remained so. He became disenchanted with his work for Bush, and with the Iraq War, and quit his post. Many folks like that take a nice, cushy job with Fox, but the key to that Faustian bargain is that you have to keep toeing the Republican Party line. That did not seem agreeable, so instead our conservative friend became a newspaper columnist, where he knew he'd have greater freedom to express his true opinions.

In the newspaper phase of his career, this gentleman continued to advocate for the things he held dear, particularly his Christianity. At the same time, he was unsparing in his criticism of the failings of the Republican Party and its members. In particular, he lamented Donald Trump's "fundamental unfitness for high office," and railed against COVID denialism, "stop the steal," and the GOP's ongoing pandering to racists. He also had an activist side, and was particularly concerned with fighting AIDS and poverty.

There are many Republican adherents who do not suffer criticism gladly, and after he ceased his work for Bush, this fellow was excoriated by many of his former conservative allies. He was also hated by Donald Trump, of course, and was the target of millions of words of vitriol, courtesy of Trump followers, in comments sections. This helped exacerbate this fellow's serious depressive disorder, which was bad enough to put him in the hospital more than once. Still, he soldiered on.

Neither of the two folks we've been talking about here was perfect, of course. Indeed, some readers might find one, or the other, or both, to be quite objectionable. But there is no question that they spent decades standing up for what they believed in, and trying to make the world a better place, despite the vast amount of blowback they got from their fellow Americans. Hence our use of "profiles in courage."

There's also a different sort of courage they both displayed. One was a mother and homemaker until she was nearly 50, and then struck out on a very different path in life. The other was a rising star in politics until his 40s, and then struck out on a very different path in life. The point is, it's never too late to course correct, if you're willing to take the plunge.

As readers have probably guessed by now, Sala Burton's protégé was Nancy Pelosi, whose career is now winding down (see above). And the Bush-speechwriter-turned-columnist was Michael Gerson, who passed away yesterday at the age of 58. A tip of the hat to both of them for having the courage of their convictions. Have a good weekend, everyone. (Z)

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