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Barbershop: Some Democrats Oppose Pelosi's House Speaker Bid

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to head into the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. This week, we're going to focus on the new Democratic majority in Congress. Its members have a big decision to make on Wednesday. That's the day they will vote on their nominee for speaker of the House. So far, there's only one candidate - the current Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, who's led the House Democrats since 2003 as minority leader, then speaker - the first woman to hold the gavel - then minority leader, again. Sure. Come January, she'll have to earn a majority of votes from the entire House. But the action is really in her own caucus because it's highly unusual for people to cross party lines to vote for a speaker.

And this has been kind of a strange and interesting exercise. Commentators have been writing think pieces, saying she's too old and would be a drag on the party's election chances. And yet here they are, back in the majority, with a record number of women members. Sixteen Democrats signed a letter opposing Pelosi's bid to return as speaker. And yet, bit by bit, they're coming around, and nobody else has stepped up to run against her. So we're trying to figure out what's going on here. So joining us now in studio to talk about this is Alexandra Petri. She's a columnist and blogger at The Washington Post. Welcome.

ALEXANDRA PETRI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also, from The Washington Post, political reporter Robert Costa. He's on the line with us from Yardley, Pa. Robert, welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

ROBERT COSTA: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: And, last but certainly not least, political journalist Linda Killian is speaking with us from the NPR bureau in New York. Linda, welcome to you as well.

LINDA KILLIAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And, Alexandra, I'm going to start with you, not least because you were nice enough to keep me company here in the studio when everybody else is visiting people, eating turkey and things like that. You wrote a column in The Post a few weeks ago. Now, it's tongue-in-cheek but the headline is, "I'm Fine With Women In Power, Just Not This Specific Woman Currently In Power" (ph). And it goes on to say, the first thing I want to make clear is that I love and support women. I'm eager to see more women rise to positions of power. But I have to say, I'm a little frustrated that we keep putting forward this specific woman who really grinds my gears, not because she's a woman. It's just - ugh, you know, her, you know? No. It goes on, and I realize I'm not doing it justice in my dramatic reading, but...

PETRI: Oh, I disagree.

MARTIN: But what are you calling out here?

PETRI: Well, I feel like there's always this undefinable thingness that any particular woman who happens to be in power is always lacking. And so people will say, well, in general, it's sort of like the generic candidate versus the actual president candidate, where you say, man, any generic Democrat would do gangbusters' business. But, then, the second you have a specific person, suddenly, they're fraught with problems.

But, with women, it's especially - the kind of line that you're asked to walk is incredibly difficult. It's something out of a fairy tale, almost. It's like you must be walking down the road, not walking but not riding and not naked but not clothed and, like, not in the road and not out of it. And, at a certain point, you have to say, huh, am I really as eager to welcome a women to lead as I've been saying I was all this time?

MARTIN: Linda? Here we go to you because you wrote a piece before the election - has to be said - some months ago, saying Pelosi would be a drag on the ticket. And you didn't come right out and say it, but you kind of implied that she's too old. I mean, she is 78 years old. It seems curious. I mean, you have a president who's 72. One of the most popular candidates on the campaign trail in the last election was Bernie Sanders, who's 77. So make your case. Why should Nancy Pelosi step off?

KILLIAN: Well, she proved not to be much of a drag on the ticket. She - the Democrats did about as well as they could have done given the state of gerrymandered districts. So I'm ready to say it. I was wrong about that. They picked up enough seats since she's been in - the Democratic leader. They have only been in the majority for four years of her 16 years as Democratic leader. They won in 2006, Barack Obama's year, 2008, picked up more seats. And they lost 60 seats in 2010. Now, with this election, they're back to where they were in 2006.

It's not just her, I want to say. In that piece, I said she's 78. Her lieutenants - James Clyburn is 78. Steny Hoyer is 79. I think it's time for her to make room for a younger generation of leaders. Just as minorities want to see themselves and women want to see themselves at the table - and it's not about her being a woman. People under 40 want to see themselves as having a seat at the table. And I think she would be wise to appoint a message team of half a dozen younger members - people like Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Joseph Kennedy, Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged her, Eric Swalwell and Jim Costa, Kathleen Rice, Cheri Bustos - and make them be the public face of the party.

MARTIN: OK. Let's hold it there for now. Let's go to Robert. Say, you've been - because you've been writing about Nancy Pelosi's ability to win over her critics. Tell us a little bit about how she does.

COSTA: If you put aside for the moment the debates over age, the debate over gender and you look at the political prism, you see in Nancy Pelosi - leader Pelosi a very savvy player, someone who, after the November elections, has been able to consolidate power on the left. She knows the passion in her ranks and in the Democratic Party, nationally, is among progressives and progressive activists. She's been able to stave off any kind of grumbling on the left. And she has signaled to them she is with them, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young congresswoman just elected from New York, to others who are veterans on the left.

Her challenge comes from the centrists. We mentioned Tim Ryan from Ohio. It's this block of mostly men - white men, centrist Democrats - who are really the public grumblers about her. And she has made a public case but, really, a private case to her colleagues that she is the one who can unite the party and has enough political capital and stature to fend off President Trump, to be in the room with President Trump and to frame it - herself as one of the left. That has really kept any kind of challenger from popping up. And the one that did, Marcia Fudge, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from Cleveland - she actually bowed out of that consideration just a few days ago and endorsed Pelosi.

MARTIN: So let me go back to Linda. I'm going to ask you about the point that Alexandra just - Petri here just made, which is that it's almost like a woman - there's nothing that she can do right. Now, you've written that her record is mixed. I mean, you know, you've graciously acknowledged that she was not a drag on the ticket. But you also said that she imperiled Democrats in swing districts by forcing them to take needlessly tough votes. Give us an example of what you are talking about.

KILLIAN: Well, chiefly, cap and trade. She made them take a vote on that, and it went nowhere. It didn't get - the senator - Democratic senators didn't have to vote on it. And they lost a lot of seats in 2010. Now, health care before the Affordable Care Act was unpopular. Republicans were spending millions. How the world changes. Now, the Affordable Care Act is popular, and she predicted it would be once people found out the specifics. But she has not - I hope that she's learned from her mistakes. She has not been very protective of those swing district moderates. And those are the people that gave the Democrats their majority this time around.

MARTIN: OK. But...

KILLIAN: And she needs to protect them and take their interests to heart.

MARTIN: So let's go back to you, Robert. Some people have taken issue with this idea that this group needs to be the focus of the Democrats' attention. And this is kind of playing out in this back-and-forth over these - the Democrats who are part of that Problem Solvers Caucus. And they're saying that they're going to withhold their votes unless she agrees to a certain set of rules that they say will help break the gridlock. Now, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that these nine Dems are choosing to hold the entire caucus hostage if we don't accept their GOP-friendly rules. What exactly is that about?

COSTA: The Problem Solvers is a bloc within the House Democrats, mostly moderates. They want to see a lot of changes. But Pelosi recognizes this, too, and she has sent letters and had meetings with many of these more moderate members in recent days and won over a few of them. One of them - one of the more moderate members she won over was Brian Higgins from Buffalo, N.Y., who had groused about her, called her names, publicly, over the past year. But she ignored all of that, and she won him over, promised him a vote on a Medicare bill that he's been pining for for many years. You're seeing Pelosi now - someone who is still confident but, also, understands she has a numbers issue she has to grapple with in the coming weeks.

She could win the conference vote this week, and she will be the favorite for the floor vote in January. But she has to continue to pluck off the 16 to 20, maybe even more, members who are on the fence, maybe leaning toward her, maybe not so she makes sure she has a secure vote in January. Pelosi's allies, though, tell me as long as no one else pops up as a possible challenger, she's likely, for sure, going to win on the floor in January.

MARTIN: Alexandra, I want to read a bit again from your article when you said - something you alluded to earlier. I want someone who's not tainted by polarizing choices in the past but who also has experience, who's knowledgeable but doesn't sound like she's lecturing, someone vibrant but not green, someone dignified but not dowdy, passionate but not a yeller. It goes on. As I said, it's hilarious. But do you think this is like a proxy around people not really willing to deal with their discomfort with a woman in that position?

PETRI: Well, I think some of it's that - I think she's also been an interesting figure for Republican. It's not just the Democrats of the House who are saying, oh, this woman around whom we have so many feelings. But, like, I think a third of the ads that were run for people in contentious districts by Republicans - we were like, look at - it's Nancy Pelosi. She's coming. She's the witch who's doing the hunting. That sort of a thing. And so she's not just at the intersection of things for Democrats but...

MARTIN: But is that related to her policy positions, or is that related to her gender? That would be the question.

PETRI: Well, I think I would...

MARTIN: If she were a man, would they be running the same ads?

PETRI: I feel like no. And I feel like you can say that because you look at, like, Mitch McConnell. And he wrote this wonderful editorial, being like - I think the real lesson of the election was that people believe that what Mitch McConnell has been doing is correct. And we should all be confident and come together bipartisanly (ph) behind Mitch McConnell. And Nancy Pelosi - immediately after this big wave, the first thing that happens is people say, ah, I want a unspecified change instead of Nancy Pelosi? Can we have that please?

MARTIN: And, Robert, final question to you. Speaking of a proxy war, is this a proxy war around gender? Or is this a proxy war around the future of the party? Same question. Is it gender, or is it policy?

COSTA: It's much more about the future of the party. You have a presidential race on the horizon, dozens of Democrats looking to run. And Republicans have often seen Leader Pelosi as a foil because she's from San Francisco and that area. But let's remember about Leader Pelosi. As this leadership has proven, she may represent San Francisco, but she's a Baltimore woman at heart, grew up at the foot of her father, Tom D'Alesandro Jr., the legendary mayor of Baltimore. She's a street politician in the best sense. She knows how to count vote. She knows how to win power, and she's doing it again.

MARTIN: And you know how to hold the time. There you go, Robert. Robert Costa is a political reporter at The Washington Post. We were also joined by Alexandra Petri, columnist at The Post, who gives a humorous take on the news, and Linda Killian, journalist and author of "The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power Of Independents." Thank you all so much for joining us on this Thanksgiving weekend.

PETRI: Thanks for having us.

KILLIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.