The white suit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore to the Capitol Thursday — this symbol of the suffragette movement — was the final tip-off.
She would cede her leadership role just as she has wielded it for nearly two decades — with the kind of stagecraft combined with statecraft that she has used to marshal her Democratic troops, to hold this diverse and often unruly bunch together in good times and in bad.
That powerful combination made Pelosi a lightning rod for Republicans who loved nothing better than to portray her as the bête noire of American politics — raising millions of dollars off ads that demonized her. And it made her a force to be reckoned with by progressives within her own party lest they go too far astray. But mostly it made her one of the most effective House speakers ever to wield the gavel.
The midterm elections produced the narrowest of Republican victories. But narrow though it was, it will still bring a change of leadership as current minority leader Kevin McCarthy prepares to ascend to the speakership and do the most undoable of jobs — bring order to a highly fractionalized House GOP.
That means that the days ahead on Capitol Hill — days of deeply divided government — will be particularly fraught. And so Pelosi went to the well of the House of Representatives to rally her troops one last time, to remind them, “American democracy is majestic. But it is fragile. Many of us here have witnessed its fragility firsthand, tragically in this chamber. And so democracy must be forever defended from forces that wish it harm.”
On Election Day voters “stood in the breach and repelled the assault on democracy. They resoundingly rejected violence and insurrection,” by rejecting election deniers on the ballot.
Pelosi announced her intention to continue to fill the San Francisco-based seat to which she was just reelected but also noted that “to everything there is a season.”
“For me the hour’s come for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus that I so deeply respect. And I am grateful that so many are ready and willing to shoulder this awesome responsibility,” Pelosi said.
She did not anoint her successor, but there has long been the assumption that after having broken the glass ceiling on congressional leadership as the branch’s first woman speaker, that the torch she passes should continue that trend. Waiting in the congressional wings is indeed a new generation of leaders — chief among them Representative Hakeem Jeffries, 52, of New York, elected in 2012 and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Jeffries has been touted as a potential Pelosi successor since he won a leadership post in 2018.
Representative Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts, who took on the number four position in leadership in 2013, and Pete Aguilar, 43, of California, who joined the Democrats’ leadership team in 2015, are certainly qualified and looking to move up in the ranks.
Even as Pelosi was accepting hugs from House colleagues, her longtime second in command, Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 83, was announcing he would not be a candidate for minority leader and throwing his support to Jeffries. Fellow octogenarian James Clyburn of South Carolina, the majority whip, is also reportedly a fan of Jeffries.
There is no shortage of talent in this new generation of leaders, and their energy and stamina will surely be put to the test in the session ahead.
Pelosi’s announcement should have come as no surprise — even in the wacky world of Washington politics. After all, being in the minority party — even by a mere handful of House seats — isn’t much fun. And the politically inspired hammer attack on the speaker’s husband, Paul, certainly brought right to her doorstep the changed nature of this new political era.
“For me, this is really the hard part because Paul was not the target and he’s the one paying the price,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in an interview that aired Monday.
In politics there’s nothing quite like leaving on top — something Pelosi now gets to do having helped shepherd health care reform through the House during the Obama administration and some $5 trillion in Biden administration domestic policy bills in the past two years. And that’s in addition to helming the House during two impeachments of President Donald Trump, keeping it up and operating during a global pandemic, surviving an insurrection, and setting up a committee aiming to prevent the next one.
Nancy Pelosi has served her party and her nation well. She leaves a legacy not just of bills passed but of barriers broken, not just for herself, but for those who will follow next year and for years to come.
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