Jonathan Bernstein

Sanchez is a mainstream liberal, and she’s already on the leadership ladder as vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus. That Sanchez is willing to publicly call for change suggests at least that she believes there is widespread sentiment among House Democrats that new blood is needed, and that saying so out loud will help her chances of moving up. As Congress scholar Josh Huder says: “The fact a California Democrat is taking this public stand is noteworthy. This push against Pelosi may be strong enough to push her out.”

The blunt truth is that Nancy Pelosi, despite her considerable overall strength as a party leader in the House, has failed in one important way: She hasn’t made any plans for her succession. And Hoyer and Clyburn haven’t been helpful, either. This was becoming clear after the 2016 elections, but unless there’s more going on than has been reported, Pelosi has wasted the last year without doing anything about it.

And now it could start to become a problem for Pelosi and for the Democrats in general. Uncertainty about her future can make it more difficult to hold the party together. Meanwhile, semi-open jockeying among various candidates for the top positions could wind up becoming a distraction, with hopefuls trying to one-up each other to score points within and outside the caucus.

Some of that can be perfectly healthy. For example, if leadership candidates work harder at raising money for 2018 House campaigns, it’s could mean more overall fundraising for Democrats. But it could also get awkward, or worse, with leadership candidates potentially trying to differentiate from each other on ideological grounds, or even just if personal relationships are strained between the current leadership and various members who aspire to replace them.

The truth is Democrats don’t have much experience with this. For almost 90 years, when the top Democrat in the House needed to be replaced, the second-ranked Democrat took over. There have been contested spots within the leadership, but nothing like the possibility of a fully open upcoming slate.

The good news for Pelosi is that her current job is the easiest of the four congressional party leaders: The House minority just can’t do too much most of the time, and it’s not too difficult to keep them united. And it’s still not too late. Pelosi certainly appears to be well-respected within the House Democratic caucus, and she’s also well-liked and well-respected by Democratic party actors outside of the House. If she puts some sort of succession process into effect, she certainly might be able to keep Democrats united as they enter into an election year, and prevent too much chaos after it. She might even be able to prolong how long she keeps her own position if she can assure the caucus that it’s not an indefinite hold on the office, although it’s certainly possible it’s too late for that.

As it is, Democrats have a real possibility of winning a House majority next November only to sabotage it with a set of bitter leadership fights immediately after the election, followed by a Congress in which an unusually inexperienced leadership team has to guide what would likely be a very small majority.

Pelosi should have acted long ago, or at least last November — but having failed then, it’s time for her to do something about her caucus’s future as soon as possible, before the future runs right over her.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. Readers may email him at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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