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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Do Dems Need Younger, More Moderate Leaders?

In his article at The Daily Beast, “The Democrats Need a New Generation of Stars,” Michael Tomasky comments on the lack of younger national leaders in the Democratic party:

Look, Nancy Pelosi has been a great legislative leader. Not good. Great. She really knows what she’s doing; has that LBJ gene. The cat-herding she did to get the Affordable Care Act passed was truly impressive…But she’s 77. And the Democrats’ number two, Steny Hoyer, is 78. And their number three, Jim Clyburn, is 77. That just doesn’t project a future orientation. Paul Ryan is 47. Kevin McCarthy, his deputy, is 52.

Age isn’t everything, and I’m not saying that she or the other two can’t do their jobs. But it’s a legitimate thing. There comes a moment when it’s just time to give some other people a chance. Tip O’Neill hung it up when he was 74. And now you’ve got Dianne Feinstein announcing at 84 that she’s going to seek re-election, and two men, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who are looking to run for president in 2020 who will be 79 and 77, respectively, on Election Day 2020. And they’re applying for eight-year jobs, not two years, like a House member.

So what I think Pelosi, Hoyer, and Clyburn should do is hold a joint press conference and say: We, the three of us, are going to serve one more term in leadership, and that’s it. We’re going to leave before getting past 80, no matter what. If the voters give us the House majority in 2018, great, we’ll all serve one more term as a kind of victory lap, and we’ll investigate this administration and subpoena the britches off them and all the rest.

Tomasky concedes that his recommendation isn’t going to happen. “I know, I know. They’ll never do it.” However, he adds “It would give Democrats a jolt of energy, something to buzz about, and give all their candidates a fresh future to imagine and describe to voters.”

Writing in the Georgia Political Review, Alex Soderstrom notes notes a “drastic age disadvantage” for younger Democratic leaders. “This inequity is most apparent in the House of Representatives, where the average age of Democratic leadership is 71, while Republican leadership averages a more youthful 49. Further,

In the Senate, the difference amongst the leaders of the two parties is less dramatic, as both Republican and Democratic leaders are, on average, in their 60s. But some of the most visible Republican voices in the chamber, such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have yet to break 50. Contrast this with key Senate Democrats, such as 67-year-old Elizabeth Warren and 75-year-old Bernie Sanders, and the future becomes murkier for Senate Democrats.

Election and polling data show that senior voters, as a whole, more frequently favor conservative candidates. Conversely, Sen. Bernie Sanders tremendous success with younger voters indicates that candidate age is not a primary consideration for them either…yet.

Some may say that calling for younger leadership is a form of ageism. But isn’t the same true for denying younger leaders a chance to enter the leadership ranks? At the very least, Democrats should explore new ways to give their younger elected officials more visibility. There are plenty of impressive younger Democrats serving in the House (here’s a few), and as mayors of major cities, and they could use more exposure.

Tomasky also argues for Democrats attracting more moderate candidates:

Democrats can’t get to 218 (a House majority) with liberals alone. Republicans can get to 218 with conservatives alone. Right now there are 240 Republicans in the House, only about a dozen of whom you’d call moderate, and even that’s stretching it. There are 194 Democrats, most but not all of whom you’d call liberal. And that’s about the outer limit on liberalism in House districts. So to be a majority, Democrats need moderates, and quite a lot of them.

That means they need to appeal to voters in the kinds of districts they won back in 2006 and 2008 but have lost overwhelmingly in the Obama/Tea Party era. Look at these two maps. This one is a map of congressional control after the 2008 election, when Democrats held 257 seats. And this one is a map of the same thing after the 2016 elections, when Democrats were reduced to 192…Look how much bluer the first map is. Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. North Carolina, Georgia, Florida. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin. Real estate yielded everywhere.

Tomasky adds, “There were, as I recall, 53 Democrats in the Blue Dog coalition in 2009. There are 18 now…The only way for the Democratic Party to grow is with more Blue Dogs.” Other Democrats believe that investing more in base turnout can enable Democratic victories, without courting more Blue Dogs. Perhaps a compromise — more Blue Dogs, coupled with a larger commitment to turning out of African-American voters in purple districts.

To be a genuine ‘big tent’ party that looks like one, Dems should cultivate diverse leadership from all constituencies, including every age group and across the liberal-moderate spectrum. Diverse Democratic leaders who are focused and well-prepared will look sober and ready to govern, compared to the adversary’s dwindling party of angry ideologues and culture warriors.

2 comments on “Do Dems Need Younger, More Moderate Leaders?

  1. Jack Olson on

    The voters were so impressed with what Congressman Pelosi accomplished as Speaker of the House that they promoted her to House Minority Leader.

  2. pjcamp on

    Look, the caucus votes for its leadership. Who are you to tell them they can’t have who they voted for? You sound like the damn Bernie Bros — sure, we lost every primary, but that shouldn’t keep us from taking power.

    If you want to be in the House or Senate leadership, get people to vote for you. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then you’re too lazy to be a leader.


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