This week 43 year-old Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan fired a shot across the bow of the Democratic establishment: he launched the first real challenge in years to Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And although he ultimately didn’t win – he lost in a 134-63 secret-ballot vote, doing better than many predicted – the ripple effect was huge. The fact that one in three House Democrats didn’t support Pelosi as leader was setting off alarms all over town.
[RELATED: What Will Happen to the Democratic Party?]
Politico reported that major voting blocs of the House Democratic caucus were seriously considering voting against Pelosi, and that some “disgruntled” members had started exacting concessions from her in exchange for their votes. In addition, BuzzFeed reported that the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus were “furious” with her, alleging that she’s shown a “lack of appreciation” for their caucus and for “Black voters’ allegiance to the party.” BuzzFeed went on to predict that as much as two-thirds of the CBC members would support Ryan.
At the same time, Michigan Rep. Sander Levin decided to step down as ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. Part of what’s going on here is that Levin is 85 years old, and was being pressured by fellow Democrats to step aside or be the subject of a public campaign to unseat him. Levin is part of a growinggenerational divide in the House leadership: Pelosi is 76 years old; Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer is 77, and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn is 76. The ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, Louise Slaughter, is 87; on Appropriations, Nita Lowey is 79; on Judiciary, John Conyers is 87. Over in the Senate, Democrats voted to replace retiring Democratic leader Harry Reid (turning 77 this week) with New Yorker Chuck Schumer (a spring chicken at just 65).
The average age of the senior Democratic leadership is 72. The average age of the Republican leadership is 49.
No wonder only 55 percent of young voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton this year, down from the 60 percent who backed Barack Obama in 2012, according to the Tufts Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. By the way, nearly four in ten millennials voted for Trump, which was more than Tufts predicted before the election.
The same wave of anti-establishment resentment that hit the Republican Party earlier this year is now hitting the Democrats. It’s no wonder that young liberals increasingly do not identify with a party led by older, establishment politicians who have been in office for decades. Many have never run a business or in the case of Hillary Clinton, even driven a car in decades. And most of them do not live in the heartland of America.
As Jeff Stein of Vox writes: “The two most prominent faces of Democrats in the age of Trump, in other words, are almost certainly going to be a New Yorker beloved by Wall Street and a San Francisco millionaire beloved by Silicon Valley.” The biggest winner this week: the Republican Party.
But the problem for Democrats is bigger than just the House and Senate. As I’ve written in the past, the party has no bench. Democrats went into November controlling the governorship and both state houses in only seven states – the lowest number since the Civil War, when there were 15 fewer states – and now Democrats control only five states. Two weeks ago, Republicans picked up the Iowa Senate and the Kentucky House, the last chamber in the South controlled by Democrats.
This means that the Democrats not only have a proliferation of older leaders who are pretty much refusing to retire – don’t these people have grandchildren to enjoy? – the party also has a scarcity of younger state legislators and governors coming up through the pipeline, and a shortage of less senior members of Congress climbing the leadership ladder.
Democrats have a policy problem too: the left’s disconnect with voters on issues that matter is profound. For example, President Obama gave a cover-story interview to Rolling Stone magazine that came out this week on his legacy and the “path forward.” Apparently the leader of the Democratic Party didn’t think the “path forward” needed to include any discussion of defeating the Islamic State group, a strong national defense or reducing the burden of $20 trillion of national debt on young people. In fact, if you look at Pew Research‘s list of issues that the majority of voters described the day after the election as “very big problems,” almost none of them – terrorism and crime, for starters – are mentioned by him.
On immigration, Obama did admit this: “It’s going to be important for Democrats and immigration-rights activists to recognize that for the majority of the American people, borders mean something.” For most Americans, Obama talking about border security is a day late and a dollar short. He defended the administration’s “big-heartedness” when it came to immigration policy, but added that “we tend to dismiss people’s concerns about making sure that immigration is lawful and orderly.” What an understatement. Democrats paid dearly on Election Day for that tendency to be dismissive of people’s concerns.
Exhibit 2 of the disconnect: “When I turn over the keys to the federal government to the next president of the United States, I can say without any equivocation that the country is a lot better off: The economy is stronger, the federal government works better and our standing in the world is higher,” Obama said. But, polls show the American people feel the opposite.During the interview, Obama mentioned the Koch brothers and Fox News more than he mentioned race relations, tax reform or rebuilding infrastructure. At least he didn’t get into access to bathrooms or gun control.
[PHOTOS: The Big Picture – November 2016]
Instead, he engaged in long discussions of climate change and legalization of marijuana – Exhibits 3 and 4 – with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. I had broken my self-imposed boycott of Rolling Stone to read the interview – as a UVA graduate, I’m still disgusted at the way the magazine promoted the completely false story of a gang rape at the school. So don’t get me started on Obama’s praise for Rolling Stone’s “great work.” Exhibit 5.
Democrats should be grateful for Tim Ryan’s wake-up call this week. Whether it’s candidate recruitment across the United States, new leadership in Washington, or a pivot to issues that really matter to voters, the Democrats have a lot of work to do. If they don’t start to change – and fast – they risk going beyond disconnected to irrelevant and insignificant.