Opinion

Now is not the time for Democrats to bail on Nancy Pelosi

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U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Long Island Democrat, has boldly called for Rep. Nancy Pelosi to step down as House minority leader, tweeting "It's time for Nancy Pelosi to go."

Rice was quoted in The New York Times on the GOP playbook of attacking Pelosi, "Is it fair? No. Are the attacks accurate? No. But guess what? They work. They're winning and we're losing."        

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Rice went on to say, "Nancy Pelosi was a great speaker. She was a great leader, but her time has come and gone."

Let's examine the wisdom of Rice's political advice.           

First, if the House Democrats dumped Pelosi as their leader, the Republicans would smell blood in the water and no doubt vilify her replacement before he or she had a chance to establish their leadership. Consequently, the new leader could quickly become a loadstone around Democratic necks in the 2018 House races.           

Perhaps it is time instead for the Democrats to respond in kind. The Republican House speaker, Paul Ryan, is quite vulnerable to political attack ads.     

Last December, Pew Research took a poll revealing that Speaker Ryan not only had a "cool" rating from Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, but surprisingly "lukewarm" ratings among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Ryan is therefore vulnerable to being caught between a rock (enraged Democrats) and a hard place (Republican divisions) over Ryan's approach to health care and his love/hate relationship with Trump.       

Ryan is a young man, whose presidential ambitions are probably deferred, not extinguished. If Ryan saw Democratic attack ads doing to him what the Republicans have been doing to Pelosi since 2010, that might deter or at least neutralize future GOP attacks on Pelosi.          

Second, the root of Trump's inside straight in the Electoral College was his turning the trade issue around on the Democrats. It is therefore ironic that Rice would call for Pelosi's ouster, since Rice changed her vote to yes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Obama administration's trade initiative for Asia. Meanwhile, it was Pelosi who consistently held the line against TPP, nurturing Democratic members in districts angry at the excesses of free trade.       

Let me quickly add, I think history will smile upon Rice's switch on TPP, given our geopolitical competition with China. Meanwhile, since Rice's test is pure politics, it was the Pelosi, not the Rice approach, on trade that better protected House Democrats.          

Third, what are the three skills needed to be an effective minority leader? One, a minority leader needs to be skillful in unifying House Democrats. Pelosi has proven to be effective at holding Democrats together on health care, tax reform, climate change and government shutdown threats.          

Two, a minority leader needs to be able to raise campaign dollars given the overwhelming advantage GOP-affiliated independent expenditure arms have over the Democrats. Pelosi remains the House Democrats' most prolific fundraiser, to the tune of $568 million raised for her colleagues since 2002, including $141 million in the 2016 campaign cycle.          

Three, a minority leader must succeed in recruiting high quality challenge candidates. Pelosi proved her candidate recruitment skills back in the Democratic wave election of 2006.           

The question for House Democrats becomes, what will best serve their mission: sticking with Pelosi or a divisive battle over new leadership? Were Margaret Thatcher reincarnated as a Democrat, she would derisively hand Pelosi's detractors a handkerchief.

A Thatcheresque analysis would focus upon several points. The Democrats’ special election defeats stung, but in each of the four districts – Kansas, Montana, Georgia and South Carolina – the Democratic candidate dramatically cut last year's GOP candidates margin.           

In 2018, the Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win back the House Majority and some 70 House districts contain a better mix of political demographics than in any of those special election contests.

Finally, Rice's pessimism is unwarranted in light of the generic ballot test polling data regarding partisan control of the Congress. The most recent NBC News/WSJ poll reflects the trend line across many polls, putting the Democrats ahead of Republicans 50 to 42 percent (up from a 47 to 43 percent Democratic lead in their April poll). If that 8 percent lead grew to 10 percent by next November, the Democrats would comfortably win back a majority in the House.

The real trick for House Democrats lies in layering in a positive economic message, on top of the anti-Trump message energizing the Democratic base, tapered to quality candidates who fit their districts. The central challenge facing Democrats today, especially House Democrats lies in crafting a resonating economic message and that task must be shared by the entire conference, not just leadership.           

Congressional Democrats have a choice: pick up your tools and help Pelosi finish the job, or kick the barn down with no real plan for rebuilding. A fair political analysis refutes Rice's conclusion that now is the time to dump a "great leader" over unfair and inaccurate Republican attacks.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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