The Plot Against Pelosi

Some members of the Democratic caucus are beginning to see the House leader as a liability.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Democratic Representative Kathleen Rice is tired of her party getting its butt kicked. “Since 2010, we’ve been losing, losing, losing, losing. There are big issues that we need to address for the country, and we’re not even at the table—which is a problem!”

As Rice sees it, Democrats need to come up with a new message, a fresh brand, an easy-to-explain economic plan that resonates with the masses. But for that to happen, she says, the caucus first must do some housecleaning. Specifically, Nancy Pelosi has got to go. “We have a failure of leadership at the top,” says Rice. And until that leadership changes, she tells me, “I don’t think we can move forward.”

Although more outspoken than most of her colleagues about her desire to clear the caucus’s top ranks (Rice thinks it’s time for Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn to leave center stage as well), she is far from alone in her opinion. Ever since Democrats lost the House in 2010, there has been grumbling that Pelosi should step aside. That grumbling grew louder after the party’s drubbing last November—and louder still after Democrats went 0 for 4 in the special congressional elections held since Donald Trump assumed office, culminating in their spending $30 million to lose last month’s red-hot race for Georgia’s sixth district.

Leadership’s response to the Georgia loss drove in-caucus critics even crazier. “Part of the frustration was the response of, ‘Well, we did better than we thought we were going to do,’” says Ohio’s Tim Ryan, who ran a long-shot bid to unseat Pelosi in last December’s leadership race. (He pulled nearly a third of the caucus, exposing real restlessness among the troops.). “Where I come from, that doesn’t cut it. I tried to think of saying something like that to one of my old football coaches in northeast Ohio. ‘Coach, we almost won. Didn’t we do great? We almost beat ‘em!’ I don’t even want to think of want they would have done if we’d said that.”

Indeed, post-Georgia, there has been a flurry of media reports about the swelling size and brazenness of the boot-Pelosi contingent. Massachusetts’s Seth Moulton set tongues wagging when he tweet-slammed his party for ignoring the reality that “business as usual isn’t working” and began publicly calling for new leadership. Two days after the election, Moulton joined Rice and Ryan in co-hosting a meeting for colleagues looking to discuss possible paths to such a change. Twenty members were invited. A dozen or so showed up. Others reportedly chickened out after news of the gathering leaked early. (One crosses Pelosi at one’s peril.)

The roots of such disgruntlement are no mystery. It is, in part, a question of basic math. Pelosi has been her party’s floor leader for 14 years. (She is the second-longest-serving House Democratic leader ever.) During her reign, the GOP has spent countless millions demonizing her as a loony lefty from freak-show San Francisco and tying her around the necks of every Democratic House candidate from Wasilla to Weeki Wachee. Fair or not, this approach has proved impressively effective outside of deep-blue enclaves. (Again: Georgia’s sixth.)

As Rice and others see it, one of the scariest questions that Democratic congressional candidates will face in the midterms will be: “If you get elected, will you vote Nancy Pelosi for leader?”

“This is not personal to Nancy at all,” insists Rice. “She has become the piñata so to speak, because she has been there for a long time. She has come to represent, even though it's not accurate, everything that’s wrong with the Democratic Party.”

“They’ve made a hell of an investment in it,” says Ryan of the GOP’s vilification of Pelosi. And that investment just keeps paying off, he notes. “Why make it easy for them?”

More broadly, say critics, Pelosi’s long tenure complicates her team’s struggle to win back the legions of voters who feel abandoned by the party. “Democrats have to come up with a new message, especially on economics. And if that message is going to be effective, our top messenger can’t be someone who has been in power 15 years,” insists Rice. “That’s not a criticism. It’s just reality. When a company launches a new branding campaign after few bad years, they don’t hire as their new spokesperson the one they had been using before.”

“The brand has been damaged,” agrees Ryan. Rebuilding, he feels, will require a fresh message and fresh messengers.

But the rebels aren’t kidding themselves. Unless Pelosi steps down voluntarily, they are unlikely to rally enough support to forcibly remove her. (Experience has its upsides, and Pelosi has her fans. Even critics praise her legislative and fundraising prowess.) For her part, the leader has made clear that she has no intention of going anywhere. The Thursday of the Rice-Ryan-Moulton huddle, Pelosi publicly mocked the in-caucus tensions.

“I think I’m worth the trouble,” she quipped to Capitol Hill reporters. As for her discontented troops: “When it comes to personal ambition and having fun on TV, have your fun. I love the arena, I thrive on competition, and I welcome the discussion.”

So even as Rice & Co. try to figure out ways to dislodge Pelosi before the midterms, they are also working to ensure that, at the very least, they are in a position to shake things up afterward.

Ryan, for instance, is one of a trio of House Democrats (along with Michigan’s Dan Kildee and Kentucky’s John Yarmuth) backing the People’s House Project, a new political group aimed at de-Pelosifying the caucus one new member at a time. “We’re working with candidates in districts that may not exactly be the target of the D-trip,” says Ryan, referring to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s official campaign arm. “They may be in tougher districts.” (Read: Not the usual urban, coastal strongholds.)

The group’s founder, former MSNBC contributor Krystal Ball, has suggested that running under the banner (and with the backing) of the People’s House will give candidates a way to distinguish themselves from (i.e., run screaming from the out-of-touch, culturally elite image of) the national party establishment. The hope is that these folks will be much harder for Republicans to lash to Pelosi.

It also means that People’s House candidates who win next November would not automatically be beholden to the current House leadership, thus chip, chip, chipping away at Pelosi’s grip on the caucus.

If Democrats can make solid gains next year with candidates not bound to Pelosi, says Rice, “we’re looking at new leadership right there.”

Meanwhile, as the rebels see it, the growing public discussion about the need for a new start and fresh perspectives itself sends a message to both candidates and voters. The public needs to understand that, at the very least, post-2018 there will be change, says Rice.

“The conversations are continuing,” she tells me. “Every day there’s progress.”