Nancy Pelosi’s leadership over the House Democrats is in trouble. As of right now, however, the alternative is worse. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Earlier this week, HuffPost reported that a letter signed by at least 17 current or incoming House Democrats was circulating in opposition to Pelosi. An even bigger number of House candidates said during their campaigns that they would vote against her as leader.
Pelosi has led the House Democrats since 2003, so she’s done this before: She beat Blue Dog Heath Shuler after the disastrous 2010 election, and Rep. Tim Ryan (by a narrower margin) after the even more disastrous 2016. But the growing number of Democrats coming out against her, coupled with the enormous gap between the age of the leadership and its new members, means that this could be the moment where she’s finally toppled.
This isn’t a huge problem in itself, and part of the argument of the anti-Pelosi set is a good one: not only is the leadership itself much older than the rank and file, but Pelosi has been reluctant to groom younger members for the leadership roles they’ll need to take over—if not now, then in the next five years.
The issue is that the people behind the plot are not exactly standard bearers of the left. Until 2015, Ryan—who said the words “competent females” to a reporter yesterday—was anti-abortion. Rep. Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts Democrat who’s opposed Pelosi since the beginning of his career and has been visiting Iowa since last year, loves “bipartisanship” and getting “back in touch with Middle America,” the kind of thing Democrats say when they don’t want to come out and openly shit on progressive agenda items.
Pelosi’s enemies have also been making vague threats to deny her the votes necessary to become speaker in January. Given that her only opposition in that case would be Kevin McCarthy, however, the alternative would be forming an IDC-like coalition with House Republicans, who will be even more insane now that their moderate wing has been virtually wiped out.
Realizing that having a bunch of white guys lead the opposition to Pelosi is a dumb look, especially considering that the Democrats will have the most diverse majority in the history of Congress, Ryan and Moulton are pushing Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, as a potential replacement. (Fudge has not confirmed whether or not she’s running, but it sure seems like she’s strongly considering it.)
But Fudge has her own problems. She’s one of only two House Democrats who refused to sign onto the pro-LGBTQ Equality Act (the other is anti-ACA, anti-choice Democrat Dan Lipinski). And when it comes to dealing with Trump, Fudge sounds a lot like Pelosi:
“I know an awful lot about government. I have done this a long time and he hasn’t,” [Fudge] said. “So I would be happy to help him figure out how to run the government when it is advantageous to the American people. When he’s wrong I’m going to fight him every way I possibly can. But when he is willing to sit down and talk with us, I think we should be willing to sit down and talk to him.”
Two of those issues: infrastructure, or a complete package for immigration.
Some high-profile progressive Democrats have already signaled they’re backing Pelosi, who would honestly be preferable to an alternative put up by a bunch of dipshits in the Problem Solvers Caucus. But considering the Pelosi challenge is shaping up to be the strongest it’s been since she became leader, the Democratic left is not doing itself any favors by ceding the anti-establishment ground to a bunch of centrists.
So here’s a solution: Barbara Lee.
This is not, to be clear, a new idea. Lee, who’s best known for being the only member in either the House or the Senate to vote against giving the executive branch nearly unlimited war powers after 9/11, has long been one of the few consistently good members of Congress. “I’d like to see new leadership, but I don’t even know what our options are,” incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post this summer. “I mean, is Barbara Lee running? Call me when she does!”
She’s also already running for chair of the House Democratic Conference, the #4 spot in the House formerly held by Joe Crowley, and one which plays an important role in setting policy and determining committee assignments. This isn’t an unimportant role by any means, and Lee could do a lot of good there, including spearheading the effort to end U.S. collaboration with Saudi Arabia on the slaughter in Yemen. No one can really blame her for sticking with her original plan, considering how many times she’s stood alone in her two decades in Congress.
But if Lee were to run for Speaker and win, she could do all of these things and more. Lee, while she’s an ally of Pelosi, is markedly to her left, as opposed to the current crop of anti-Pelosi plotters, and would put a progressive agenda at the front and center of the Democratic Party in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades. She also knows how to deal with Trump; earlier this year, she boycotted the State of the Union. From her statement then:
History has shown us that democracy is fragile. It can only be maintained by engaged citizens and elected officials who are willing to protect and preserve our sacred institutions. While I respect our democratic system, I cannot in good faith attend the State of the Union. Instead of listening to President Trump manufacture accomplishments, attack his political enemies and intentionally mislead the American people, I will join principled activists to strategize the next phase of resistance and our vision to move America forward.
The Democratic Party’s gains in November were a positive development, but there’s still a lot of work that remains to be done. Putting an actual left-winger second in the line of succession to the presidency would not only be a huge victory for progressives, it would send a message to the rest of the country that the Democratic Party is finally breaking from the neoliberalism that’s defined it since at least 1972. And of all of the Democrats in the House of Representatives right now, there isn’t a single person more suited to communicate that message than Barbara Lee.
Update, 12:05 p.m. ET: Following the publication of this post, Rep. Fudge’s office sent along the following statement:
I would put my record of support for the LGBTQ community against anyone else’s and challenge anyone to refute it. I fully support equal rights for the LGBTQ community. There is not one vote that I have ever taken that is anti-LGBTQ. Every vote that has been brought to me, I have supported.
What I opposed was including the Equality Act in the current Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act is over 50 years old and isn’t even adequate to protect the people currently in it. I want us to do a new and modern civil rights bill that protects the LGBTQ community and updates protections for this era. I do not believe it is appropriate to open and relitigate the current Civil Rights Act.