It is the fate of successful party managers to be liked by no one, but to be indispensable to all. On the 28 November, Nancy Pelosi won the House Democrats’ nomination for the next Speaker of the House. Her majority, 203 votes to 32, shows how she has managed to stay on top in her party, not least by rendering herself indispensable to the other party managers. For the same reason, it suggests that she is becoming dispensable.
Pelosi’s nomination has a certain logic. She has served as Minority Leader in the House of Representatives since 2011. The Democrats flipped the House in November’s midterms. So who better to serve as Speaker?
Social scientists have a name for this logic: path dependency. Institutions, like the people who run them, are creatures of habit. They perpetuate themselves beyond their useful span of service, because part of their service is to reward the people who work for them. Since the 1990s, the institutional habits of the Democrats have been centrist and technocratic. The party’s management has pursued two Clintonian triangulations.
Internally, the Democratic leadership has triangulated the needs of its two biggest bloc votes, the unions and African Americans, with its own need to cultivate the donor class. Electorally, it has mirrored this strategy by promising protection and welfare, but without raising taxes to a level that alienated Wall Street.
Pelosi, a well-heeled limousine liberal from California, is the quintessence of these strategies. Indeed, her rise to indispensability is a product of them. So too was the sudden rise of the inexperienced Barack Obama, who promised an expansion of the state on a scale not seen since FDR, while drawing unprecedented donations from Wall Street. That allowed Obama to run for the Democratic nomination as the opposite of Hillary Clinton, but to run for the presidency as the second coming of Bill Clinton.
That was a smart strategy, but who now reckons that Obama is still the smartest guy in the room? No one. There are three reasons for that, and all three will determine what happens next to Nancy Pelosi.