What was the House Democrats’ message this past election, the fourth straight in which it failed to win a majority? What was it pushing that got through to voters, beyond criticism of Donald Trump? It was not a “robust economic message,” said Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, the seven-term Democrat challenging Rep. Nancy Pelosi for minority leader, with a vote on Wednesday morning. So what was it? Based on what he was hearing from the leadership, it was funding to combat Zika.
“Near the end,” he said, “we were getting emails from leadership about Zika virus and Center for Disease Control funding,” Ryan said in an interview the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. He had been making calls to fellow members that morning to gauge whether Pelosi had locked in two-thirds support of the caucus, as she’d publicly claimed.
“I’ll just tell you,” he went on, “if you’re a working-class person drinking a beer on Steel Street in Youngstown, you’re not worried about the Zika virus.” He added, for good measure, that he believed funding the response to Zika was important, and it was a “dereliction of duty” for Republicans to let that linger.
“But guys are worrying about getting food on the table for their families,” he added, “and we’re pushing a message affecting two states in the Union and maybe three or four or five congressional districts.”
The Rust Belt, from which Ryan hails, kicked Democrats’ ass on Election Day. “Through neglect,” Ryan said, “we had a bunch of our voters go vote for Trump or not go out and vote at all. Because we’re not talking about the kind of things that are on people’s minds. And that’s a major, major problem in politics.” He described Democrats’ remote strategy as going into these states for six months around election time, “bombarding” them with ads, and then leaving—and either not building, or losing track of, long-standing relationships with the communities that used to be rock-solid for them.
Some members, Ryan among them, felt that the whupping called for the party at least to consider a change at the top. The leadership has originally eyed Nov. 30 for the leadership elections, but then, shortly after Election Day, moved them up to Nov. 15. That led some members, who wanted more time to digest the election results, to complain and get the date pushed back to Wednesday. Ryan, who had been talking with other disgruntled members about “turning the page,” presented himself as an alternative candidate on Nov. 17.
Pelosi has led House Democrats since 2003. Although everyone familiar with her work, from close friends to sworn enemies, would call Pelosi a skilled legislator and shrewd tactician, it’s also true that Democrats have held a majority for only four years of what would be her 16-year tenure atop the caucus were she to serve through the next Congress. How much of that is attributable to her leadership is a matter of highly subjective debate. But the troika of Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, all in their late 70s, have led House Democrats since the middle of the Bush administration. And though Pelosi last week offered to expand leadership to junior members, there’s no indication that the leader herself sees the latest loss as a sign that it’s time for the party to reboot. “We need accountability, and there’s no accountability from leadership,” New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Ryan endorser, said over the weekend.
Rice’s comment echoed Ryan’s central complaint: that under Pelosi’s leadership, Democrats have lost touch with the economic message that once made the Rust Belt central to the party’s coalition. “We need to be talking to people in Ohio and Michigan and Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and all across the country,” Rice added. “That’s a message we did not have in this election, and we need to hear what the voters have said. We cannot do this same thing over and over and over again and expect a different result.” Two other young rising stars in the Democratic ranks, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego, endorsed Ryan on Tuesday, and Ryan claimed earlier in the morning that he was within “striking distance” of Pelosi. By Tuesday afternoon, Pelosi supporters in the House had begun tweeting why they #StandWithNancy.
Could this thing be getting close? The increasing nastiness in the race in recent days may be a sign that Pelosi sees Ryan as too close for comfort, and Ryan sees Pelosi as close enough to go in for the kill.
Ryan, who describes himself as “feisty,” has turned more aggressive in recent days. Though Ryan has criticized the party for prioritizing appeals to “subgroups” over a central economic message, his volleys against Pelosi veer close to an identity politics of his own—Make the Democrats Great Again—that relies on hackneyed imagery such as the beer drinker on Steel Street. “This election’s not going to be won at fundraisers on the coasts,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “it’s going to be won in union halls in the industrial Midwest and fish fries in the Midwest and the South.” Ryan also told me that his relative youth would serve the party well with millennials. (Ryan, 43, is not a millennial.)
The “union hall” thing did not sit well with Pelosi. “I’m not going to pay attention to, ‘I can’t step in a union hall.’ I’m a woman of steel in there,” Pelosi told the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “I’m constantly invited by the unions to go to their meetings. That’s just not, it’s just not true.” She also mocked Ryan for not being able to carry his district for Hillary Clinton, and she described his complaint that her proposed internal reforms would only strengthen her grip over the caucus as “pathetic.”
Ryan quickly dismissed my question about whether he had received anything resembling a threat from leadership to his committee assignments or his fundraising since he made his announcement. There had been nothing like that, he said. In fact, he had heard nothing at all from leadership.
Leadership has plenty to say about him elsewhere, though, and it’s not friendly. “A lot of people like Tim Ryan,” a senior Democratic aide said, but “this is not an accomplished legislator.” The aide added that Ryan “is not focused on being a member of Congress, [and] he has not been for a long time,” noting that he “has put himself forward as a candidate for state office every single cycle since 2006.” (Ryan has considered runs for governor, senator, and lieutenant governor over the years, but he has never pulled the trigger.) He doesn’t “regularly attend caucus meetings or pay dues,” either, the aide said.
And then there’s his slender legislative record. “He’s not going to talk about his legislative record because he’s passed three bills, all having to do with buildings,” the aide said. “Two naming buildings, and one transferring federal land for a building. It’s not something to rest your laurels on.” Ryan, when pressed about his accomplishments on Fox News Sunday, pointed multiple times to his seat on the Appropriations Committee, which is no small deal. “I learned a lot,” he said, “and I’m ready to put that knowledge now to work for the entire caucus.”
Both the Ryan and Pelosi camps recognize the importance of legislative skill. Unified control of the federal government in this polarized era usually means that the House minority needn’t even bother to show up to work. But if the typical schisms between rank-and-file Republicans and the hard-right Freedom Caucus emerge even under a Republican president, that means that Paul Ryan will still need Democratic votes to move key legislation like spending bills. Pelosi has been as talented at exploiting her opportunities as minority leader as she was at keeping her caucus together as speaker. But has she gotten so good at being an essentially permanent minority leader that she and her loyalists have lost the plot?
“Is the goal to be a really good minority party, a really good opposition party, or is the goal to win the majority back?” Ryan said. “It’s a lot easier to negotiate and be skillful from the majority. I want Paul Ryan negotiating with us. I don’t want to have to negotiate with Paul Ryan.”
It’s not an easy decision, and that says something about where Democrats are these days. On the one hand, if there were ever a sign that Democrats should clean house and, as a matter of dignity, fire everyone who had a top position in the party, it was Nov. 8. On the other, there is a lot on the line in the next Congress; a recognized and feared legislative skillset might be more useful than a certain camaraderie with the boys throwing back shots at the union hall. No one ever said rebuilding would be easy.