“Another one bites the dust” – Queen, 1980
To the casual observer, the leadership contest between House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California, and Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio, offered a look into the fissures cleaving the Democratic Caucus.
Democrats reelected Pelosi to her post Wednesday after she’s served 14 years as either minority leader or House speaker. Pelosi’s longevity is impressive. But her success and staying power simultaneously frustrated junior lawmakers and stunted their opportunities for advancement.
Pelosi vs. Ryan provides a glimpse into the problem younger, ambitious Democrats have with promotion opportunities. But the sudden announcement Thursday about House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., leaving Congress lays out the essence of the issue -- in IMAX 3D with Technicolor and Dolby Surround sound.
California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown nominated Becerra to serve as the state’s attorney general. If confirmed by both bodies of the California legislature, Becerra succeeds Sen.-elect Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Harris leaves the California attorney general’s post to take the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Becerra was long thought to be in line to climb the leadership ladder.
He’s the fourth-highest ranking position in his party’s hierarchy. But Becerra’s term limit expires at the end of this Congress.
Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., is set to succeed Becerra in January. Ahead of them both are Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. All three of them are in their mid-seventies. Becerra is a youthful 58. Crowley is 54.
So, with Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn sticking around, how long would have Becerra been willing to cool his heels and wait for movement?
Becerra isn’t the first to face this conundrum.
Interpreting which House Democrats were on the rise is reminiscent of Cold War-style Kremlinology. When tracking the Soviet Union, political scientists and intelligence officials track where Soviet leaders sat at the May Day Parade. They would also read Pravda to see whether the titles of some positions were capitalized and which were listed in lower case.
As far back as 2005, many viewed current Chicago Mayor and then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., as Pelosi’s possible successor in the House leadership.
Sure, Hoyer was immediately behind Pelosi. But Pelosi and Hoyer have a rivalry that dates back to when they worked together for the late-Sen. Daniel Brewster, D-Md., in the 1960s.
Remember that Pelosi is Maryland native. Some observers contend Pelosi seemingly relished blocking Hoyer at various turns. Pelosi’s friend, the late-Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., ran against Hoyer for majority leader in late-2006 when Democrats captured the House. But Hoyer still defeated Murtha.
Emanuel found himself on track to be a star in the House, chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and leading the Democratic Caucus. However, things changed dramatically when then President-elect Obama asked him to serve as White House chief of staff in late-2008.
Pelosi then drafted Rep. and now Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to serve in a position she created: “Assistant to the Speaker.” Some viewed the slot as a slap at Hoyer, especially since Van Hollen also hails from Maryland.
Political watchers think Van Hollen bailed. He elected to run for the Senate and succeeds retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., in January.
After two rounds chairing the DCCC, Pelosi drafted Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., for a leadership post a few years ago. Israel served as one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants and headed communications efforts. Some Kremlinologists conjectured about Israel’s positioning relative to Pelosi. But then Israel announced in January he wouldn’t seek re-election.
Pelosi hoped to work in tandem next year with the first female president. There was speculation that Pelosi might eventually enjoy an appointment to serve as U.S. ambassador to Italy or the Vatican. Such a scenario would open up an opportunity for Hoyer -- and certainly Becerra.
If Pelosi did depart, one wonders whether she would have backed her sometimes-adversary Hoyer from her native Maryland -- or preferred Becerra from her adopted state of California. Incoming Democratic Caucus Chairman Crowley would have been in the mix, too.
Regardless, there was a path for Becerra to advance. The question was just if and when that would come.
Some California Democrats hoped to elect a Hispanic U.S. senator from the Los Angeles area. Boxer and fellow Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein have represented California in the Senate since 1993.
Both hail from the Bay Area. The late-Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston, was also from northern California. Former GOP California Sen. Pete Wilson, served as mayor of San Diego before becoming the state’s governor.
Some observers think Boxer’s retirement gave Becerra -- who represents a district in urban Los Angeles -- a shot at the Senate. But he declined to run, preferring to stay in the House. Harris, an Oakland native, defeated Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Latina from southern California -- for Boxer’s Senate seat last month.
There was also chatter that Becerra could serve in a potential Clinton administration. Various titles wafted about the political ether. White House chief of staff. budget director. Treasury secretary.
Again, the Clinton universe failed to materialize. Becerra was stuck in the House without much of a portfolio for the next Congress.
Then came Tuesday night.
Out of the blue, Rep. Sander Levin, Michigan, shocked his colleagues by announcing he would no longer serve as the top Democrat on the important House Ways and Means Committee. Levin immediately threw his support for the post to Becerra.
Becerra dashed off a “Dear Colleague” letter, which pitched his bona fides to succeed Levin as the next ranking Democrat on the committee.
The speed of the letter was astonishing considering the breaking news of Levin’s decision. Many suggested that Becerra drafted much of the missive long ago and had it waiting in a drawer for just the proper occasion.
In the letter, Becerra laid out how he would tangle with President-elect Donald Trump incoming Republican administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.
“I write to ask for your support to serve as our Caucus' Ranking Member on the Ways and Means Committee for the 115th Congress,” Becerra wrote. “With the White House and Congress in Republican hands, we need a strong, experienced and energetic leader who will take the fight for our democratic values on the Ways and Means Committee to the American people.
"Over the next two years, many of America’s toughest policy decisions will play out in this committee. The change we seek is not the change that Republicans plan. The Republican Majority threatens to bury the Affordable Care Act, privatize Medicare and Social Security and turn our tax code into the textbook for ‘trickle-down economics.’ ”
Becerra told Democrats that “over the years, I have prepared for just such an assignment.”
Rep. Richard Neal, Massachusetts, is the longest-serving Democrat on the Ways and Means panel. A bewildered Neal arrived at the Capitol on Tuesday night to learn the Levin news. Fellow Michigan lawmakers hadn’t even heard about Levin’s plan to give up his plum assignment.
In 2012, an internal Democratic committee picked Neal to serve as the top Democrat on Ways and Means, leapfrogging Levin. The full Democratic caucus then re-appointed Levin, sidelining Neal. Fox is told that Neal was “furious” at what looked like an effort to edge him out again -- especially considering the 2012 treatment.
So who might prevail this time? Becerra or Neal?
And then Jerry Brown suddenly asked Becerra to succeed Harris as the state’s attorney general.
“Governor Brown has presented me with an opportunity I cannot refuse -- to serve as Attorney General of my home state,” Becerra said.
Becerra suddenly found a landing spot -- but not in the House, Senate, or for that matter, the Clinton administration.
Neal is all but assured of a high-profile gig as he tussles with Trump’s team and congressional Republicans over central policy disputes.
As surprising as the Levin news was Tuesday, Becerra’s announcement rocked the U.S. Capitol and Sacramento. Many Democrats lawmakers were preparing to support Becerra for the Ways and Means job.
“He just asked me on the floor last night to vote for him,” said one amazed Democrat who asked they not be identified when informed of Becerra’s rapid exit. “Now I don’t even get to do that.”
Becerra would serve as California’s top law-enforcement officer through 2018. What comes next is anyone’s guess. Another round as Attorney General? A gubernatorial campaign? Could Becerra run for Senate in 2018 if Feinstein retires?
Establishing himself statewide helps Becerra. But nobody knows whether Feinstein, the oldest living U.S. senator, steps down in two years.
Either way, after years of warming up in the wings, Becerra finally gave up on his chances of earning a promotion in the House.
He’s not the first. Consider Messrs. Emanuel, Van Hollen and Israel. They simply moved on as well.