Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Can The House Democrats Move From Crisis Into Opportunity?


The House Democratic caucus is old-- really, really old. Several have told me they're too old to give much of a damn about idealism anymore. "Look to the kids like Donna Edwards (age 55) if you want to see anything happen," one elderly former fire-breathing progressive told me. Personally, I admire George Miller (age 68) and Henry Waxman (age 74) for retiring on their own terms. And I pity poor, senile Ralph Hall (age 90 and barely functioning) for begging his constituents for "just one more term." A couple of days ago David Hawkings, at Roll Call, asked some pertinent questions Democrats should be looking at-- fast.
Who in the Democratic Caucus is ready to join the party’s legislative power players? Is that new generation going to be dominated by bipartisan deal-makers or liberal ideologues? Will seniority fade as a predictor of prominence? When will the collective grip of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s team start to slip? How many topflight legislators will be willing to labor at the margins until the Democrats retake the House, given that their next solid shot might not come until the next decade?

The internal dynamics are fluid enough that few clear answers are apparent, and the most adept and ambitious House Democrats are savvy enough to know it’s too early for open boasting about why they should move up the depth chart.

But their legislative top tier is undeniably on the backside of a generational changeover.

While Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer have provided more than a decade’s worth of stability at the very top of the caucus, no fewer than 10 of the top Democratic seats on committees have changed hands since 2010, the most recent year the party was in control. The number will grow to a dozen with the retirements of Waxman and his California colleague George Miller. (Each chaired a pair of legislative committees in their careers; Waxman is now the ranking member at Energy and Commerce and Miller has that job on Education and the Workforce.) That will leave no more than eight members next year who were chairmen at the end of the last Democratic majority.

Three are in their 80s and two others, Minnesota’s Collin C. Peterson from Agriculture and West Virginia’s Nick J. Rahall II at Transportation, are facing tough races for re-election in generally Republican districts.
Hawkings went straight for the conventional wisdom shelf to find the next generation of post-Pelosi/Hoyer Democratic leaders (she's 73 and he's 74). First off, anyone standing between Debbie Wasserman Schultz and either a bagel with a schmear of scream cheese, a fat corporate bribe or the Speakership better be ready to play Nancy Kerrigan to her Tonya Harding. I don't know who would take her on, but I can't imagine either Chris Van Hollen (MD) or Xavier Becerra (CA) having the intestinal fortitude to go for it. And some of the most promising leaders who could be transformative for a stumbling, tired party-- like Keith Ellison (MN), Alan Grayson (FL), Matt Cartwright (PA)-- don't have the seniority. Conventional wisdom points to characters like the most corrupt Democrat in the House, former New Dem chairman Joe Crowley (NY), current New Dem chairman Ron Kind (WI), sleazy New Dem Adam Schiff (CA), sleazier Blue Dog Henry Cuellar (TX)… A couple of decent names mentioned for moving up the leadership ladder include Lloyd Doggett (TX), Jim McGovern (MA), Jared Polis (CO), Bobby Scott (VA), Frank Pallone (NJ), Peter Welch (VT), but not all the way up.

"But," opines Hawkings, “'the next Waxman,' it is clear, is not hiding in plain sight anywhere on the Democratic bench-- and expecting to find that person would be naive in any case." Enter, the woman likely to replace Waxman as the Representative from CA-33, Marianne Williamson, a far more progressive and far more independent-minded kind of a leader who fits in better with where grassroots Democrats yearn to take their party. Daylin Leach, Eloise Reyes, Rob Zerban, Lee Rogers, Stanley Chang, Paul Clements, Kelly Westlund is where the House Democrats will hopefully be looking for new directions instead of tired, more-of-the-same hacks like Crowley, Wasserman Schultz and Kind.

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