But Pelosi’s caucus also grew restive during its years in the minority. Younger members impatient to distinguish themselves in a body of 435 saw little hope of achieving committee chairmanships; Pelosi, unlike her Republican counterparts, maintained the tradition of allotting them based on seniority. She did this out of deference to the Congressional Black Caucus, according to several former staff members, because African-American members have historically not been granted high party standing except through longevity. But between the unavailability of chairman posts and a leadership pipeline clogged with 70-somethings — Pelosi; Hoyer, the minority whip; and James Clyburn, the assistant minority leader — younger House Democrats have been left to ponder other opportunities.
“You have some of the institutional members say, ‘Who are these upstarts?’ ” one of these younger Democrats, Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who was elected in 2012, told me in 2015. “One member of Congress compared us to spoiled kids, like teenagers who want a car on their 16th birthday. But you look at my class: Tulsi Gabbard, she’s not going to stay in the House for long — she’ll run for governor. Joe Kennedy, the same. Pat Murphy, the same. And they’re all talented, ambitious and good fund-raisers. I’ve just got to think that when you see that 20-year road to be in a position of consequence, other options look a lot more attractive.” O’Rourke, of course, left this year to pursue those other options, following his fellow erstwhile rising House stars Xavier Becerra (who was appointed attorney general of California in 2017) and Kyrsten Sinema (whom Arizona elected to the Senate this month).
The growing unease born of being in the minority was not confined to these members, however. “She faces more division in her caucus than she ever had before,” the former Pelosi aide told me. After the disastrous 2010 midterms, Heath Shuler, a Blue Dog moderate from North Carolina, decided to run against her for minority leader. Following the devastation of the 2016 election, another centrist, Tim Ryan of Ohio, challenged her as well. Neither Shuler nor Ryan made much pretense of being a Pelosi-caliber legislative tactician. Their candidacies were more based on what they were not: not from San Francisco, not liberal. They were also not skilled vote-counters. Shuler managed to collect just 43 of the Democratic caucus’s 193 votes; six years later, Ryan took 63, to Pelosi’s 134.
Still, by the time of Ryan’s challenge to Pelosi’s leadership in November 2016, several Democrats were no longer hiding their dissatisfaction — itself a sign of Pelosi’s diminished power. She responded by creating new leadership posts and appointed three young members — Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and David Cicilline of Rhode Island — to oversee a “rebranding” of the party that was more an exercise in inclusiveness than a substantive reimagination. She also began assuring members that she did not intend to stick around forever. She insisted publicly, for example, that had Hillary Clinton won, Pelosi would have felt that the Democrats no longer required her stewardship.
Many doubted this claim, including former staff members with whom I spoke. Her closest political confidant, George Miller, told me that Pelosi had never made such an indication to him. Further, the minority leader’s recent assertion that it was important for her to stay so that the American public would have “a woman at the table” struck some in her caucus as disingenuous, given that Pelosi’s perceived favorites to succeed her throughout the years — Chris Van Hollen, Steve Israel of New York, Xavier Becerra and most recently Joe Crowley, who was beaten in a primary upset in New York this year by the Democratic Socialist first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — were all men.
But, Pelosi knew, nothing would mollify her caucus like victory. In paving a road back to the majority, she returned to the playbook that worked for her last time. “The first thing we had to do in 2005 was take the president’s numbers down,” Pelosi told me, referring to Bush’s approval rating. “Bush was 57 percent in early 2005.” The moment Bush introduced the idea of partly privatizing Social Security, Pelosi’s Democrats pounced and began attacking the scheme as an assault on senior citizens. “His numbers came down to 38 in the fall,” she recalled, “and that’s when the retirements started to happen” — nervous Republican congressmen who decided to vacate their seats.
Because Trump began his presidency as a polarizing force even within his own party, Pelosi said, the Democrats were best served by standing back while one fainthearted Republican House member after the next, facing variously a Trump-adoring base or a Trump-inspired anti-Republican backlash, announced their retirements — 39 House and Senate members in all. The new Democratic candidates by and large stuck to the disciplined campaign message prescribed by Pelosi’s rebranding efforts: protecting health care, advocating better jobs and wages through infrastructure improvements, restoring integrity to government. By the fall of 2018, some pundits criticized the Democratic field for not pounding away on Trump. Pelosi’s view, she recalled, was: “Yeah, that’s what Hillary did, not what we’re doing.”