Why Pelosi should go — and take the ’60s generation with her

Matt Bai
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi leaving her weekly press conference at the Capitol on June 22. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

There’s nothing quite so thankless as being the nominal leader of a leaderless party, especially if that party is bereft of power and doesn’t have much to offer by way of an agenda, except for maybe keeping the other party from destroying the country.

When the majority party fails, your supporters say it’s only because the president is an evil buffoon and everyone has figured it out. When the majority succeeds, they say it’s your fault, because obviously you failed to make clear to people what an evil buffoon the president really is.

So it goes for Nancy Pelosi, who’s come under withering criticism (again) since Democrats got clobbered in two more special elections for Congress last week. Facing calls for her resignation, the longtime House leader acknowledged that she’s something of an easy target for Republican ad makers who want to portray the party as a bunch of coastal elites.

And yet, she wryly told reporters at the Capitol, “I think I’m worth the trouble.”

To be clear, Pelosi had almost nothing to do with the Democrats’ recent losses, all of which came in conservative districts the party had no business winning, anyway. But that quote said a lot about the way she and her aging contemporaries think about themselves.

Pelosi should leave the stage not because she’s controversial, but because what Democrats desperately need, more than any new branding strategy or slogan, is a turnover in talent. Which is why the rest of the party’s oldster luminaries should follow her to the exit, too.

Here’s a question for all you trivia buffs to ponder. Who do you think was the last nonincumbent Democrat over 55 to win the White House? I’m not talking about Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson, both of whom inherited the job, but someone running against a sitting president or at the end of an eight-year term.

Here’s a hint: You weren’t alive, and neither were your parents.

The answer is Woodrow Wilson, who ran so long ago that you could still be both a progressive and a white supremacist and not have everyone find that completely bizarre.

Why is that? It’s not because there weren’t any older candidates to vote for, or because America was somehow ageist. From Wilson’s time to today, the country elected no fewer than five new Republican presidents who were at least that old. In fact, before George W. Bush, the last nonincumbent Republican under 55 to win the White House was Herbert Hoover.

No, it’s because Democrats win when they embody modernization. Liberalism triumphs only when it represents a reforming of government, rather than the mere preservation of it. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — all of them, in one way or another, offered a stark departure from the orthodoxies of the past.

Americans don’t need Democrats to stand up for nostalgia and restoration. They already have Republicans for that.

Of course, all the Democratic presidents I mentioned had assists from older, long-serving leaders in Congress. Having a 77-year-old House leader doesn’t necessarily doom a party to irrelevance.

Except that never in its history has the Democratic Party been so thoroughly dominated by the loud voices of its oldest generation. If Republican candidates weren’t so gleefully featuring Pelosi in their ads, they’d be going after Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, none of whom seems remotely interested in yielding the floor.

(Really the only younger Democrat you could fairly call a national spokesperson for the party is its 55-year-old chairman, Tom Perez, whose big idea this week was to form a human chain around the Capitol. Or maybe I’m just remembering an episode of “The Simpsons.” I can’t be sure.)

Anyway, it’s not just that all these iconic Democrats are older; it’s that their vision for the party — with the possible exception of Biden, who’s pro-trade and pro-growth — is relentlessly backward-looking. They’re for government-run health care, expanding Social Security benefits (even for the wealthy) and free college for everyone. They’d pay for all of it with tax increases that magically cover the cost.

Basically, they want everything the ’60s generation always wanted, without any acknowledgment of what public money has failed to achieve, or of how technology might transform the institutions of government.

They persist in using the same tired language from the same consultants — “working families,” “playing by the rules,” “fighting for you” — that has already numbed most Americans to the point of tuning out political rhetoric altogether.

In any publicly held business where the leaders were this old and grounded in the past, the CEO would probably be judged, in part, on how well he or she had planned for succession. But there’s no succession plan among the Democratic Party’s septuagenarian elite. They’re determined to replay the ’60s on an endless loop, for as long as they can. They’re worth the trouble.

Even if Pelosi were to step aside, her most likely successor would be Steny Hoyer, who might have made for an excellent party leader at one time, but who is himself 78. Behind him comes James Clyburn, who is one of my all-time favorite politicians to interview, but who is about to turn 77.

There’s no chance for a younger talent like Ohio’s Tim Ryan, who has already challenged Pelosi and failed, and who is almost certain to run for governor instead of hanging around. There’s likely not much future in leadership for a guy like Adam Schiff, the California congressman whom millions of Americans now know as the party’s chief investigator of President Trump in the House.

There’s no clear path to national office for a younger senator like Kirsten Gillibrand or Michael Bennet, or even a celebrity like Cory Booker, continually eclipsed by their higher-decibel, nostalgia-peddling elders.

Certainly how old you are isn’t as important here as your mindset. There are Democrats approaching retirement age — Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper come to mind — who are nonetheless modernists by outlook and could infuse the party with a sense of newness and evolution.

And certainly you can lay some of the blame for the current stasis on younger Democrats, some of whom are good enough orators to excite the party’s base, but who have thus far failed spectacularly to offer any reformist agenda to match the moment. If you don’t have a competitive governing vision, you don’t have much to complain about.

But the bottom line is that Democrats squander their historical advantage by rallying around elders who would build a better time machine than their Republican rivals. Liberalism doesn’t need its own version of “Make America Great Again”; it needs a vision to make America new again.

A party that revolves around Pelosi and Sanders and Warren — not to mention the lingering Clintons and their entire campaign apparatus — is a party that could actually manage to deliver America, for a second time, into the clutches of Trumpism.

Trust me: No one’s worth that kind of trouble.