Nancy Pelosi’s House fight is a portent of battles to come

US politics: With 2020 presidential race ahead, the speakership tussle is just a taster

A liberal heroine, born in the 1940s, part of a Democratic dynasty, runs for high US office. Some on her own side wince at her poll ratings and air of entitlement. Supporters praise her fundraising and toughness in the face of the enemy. Conservatives equate her with socialised medicine.

Nancy Pelosi's bid to be speaker of the House of Representatives is so evocative of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential nomination run that major differences get lost in the reverie. The Democrats had credible alternatives to Clinton. They have none to Pelosi. The excellently named Marcia Fudge had considered a challenge before demurring. Several Democrats pledged to vote against Pelosi but lack a candidate of her heft. If politics is the transmission of ideas into statute, then the woman who passed Obamacare in her previous stint as speaker must look to the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell for a modern equal.

Nor is her unpopularity quite the corporate problem for the Democratic Party that Clinton's was. Americans do not focus on the speakership when casting their congressional votes. Anti-Pelosi advertisements failed the Republicans in the recent midterm elections, which returned a conclusively Democratic House. Bay Area liberal she may be, daughter and sister of Baltimore mayors she certainly is, but the "Pelosi problem" is often an alliterative slogan in search of content.

First skirmish

In normal times, these considerations alone would see her home. That doubt remains suggests something larger at work. The “fight” for speaker, if non-committal sparring can be dignified as such, is the first skirmish in a longer war for the future of the Democratic Party. It is contested on the terrain of ideology, identity and – which is less discussed – age.


Radicalised in opposition to Donald Trump, the left wants a more generous line on immigration and healthcare. Its new hope in the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, "currently" supports Pelosi as the "most progressive candidate" available. Even this tepid endorsement took a while. In other words, Pelosi has lived long enough to see herself become a relative moderate.

Before she smiles too wryly at the historic twist, some of her biggest internal foes, as Ocasio-Cortez says, are still "to her right", or at least represent red states. Among them are Pennsylvania's Conor Lamb and Ohio's Tim Ryan, who contested her for the leadership of House Democrats in 2016. They do not air substantive differences with her, calling instead for "new leadership". But they know more than most how much she riles non-liberal voters.

Ethnic minorities

Complicating the left-versus-right tussle is the inescapable subject of identity. Moves against Pelosi upset those liberals who, after the midterm success of female candidates, proclaimed the “year of the woman”. Others want more leaders from ethnic minorities (Fudge is black) as they start to see in non-white America the party’s electoral future. A strategic as much as philosophic rift is deepening between these Democrats and those who want to lure aggrieved white men from Trump.

Less raw, but just as deep, is the generational split. More than other western democracies, the US is still run by those who came of age in the 1960s. As well as Trump (72) and McConnell (76), the two House Democrats who rank below Pelosi are septuagenarians. Chuck Schumer, the party's leader in the Senate, turns 68 this week. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, is 74. Life tenure allows supreme court justices to make consequential decisions into their dotage. Joe Biden, still the Democrat most tailored to Trump's core audience, is 76. Bernie Sanders, a left alternative, is 77. Fudge is straight out of the cradle at 66.

Jejune politicians

There are advantages to rule by elders. For a case study in jejune politicians being found out at the highest level, consider the tragicomedy of Britain. Still, an aged cartel sits at odds with an otherwise dynamic US. What unites the Democratic right with the left, and the “white guys” with the rainbow-coalition builders, is impatience with a generation of leaders they all thought had passed with Clinton. Even some of Pelosi’s own supporters would like her to serve just one term.

Shared distaste for Trump has glazed a veneer of cohesion on the Democrats. The reality is a party marbled with cross-cutting faultlines over policy, gender, race and even age. Something about Pelosi brings these to the surface, but more total exposure will come with the 2020 presidential nomination race. The fight for the speakership is but a trailer. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018