Capitol Idea: Enter Sam Rayburn’s Ghost, Or Prepare For Hand-to-Hand Combat In the House

You’ve got to hand it to Nancy Pelosi.

After Tuesday’s rout, in which the Democrats lost their majority and with it, Pelosi’s hold on the speaker’s gavel, Pelosi could have just slipped away into history.

She could have done as Newt Gingrich did at the end of his speakership in 1999, resigning his seat and walking away. Or she could have followed her immediate predecessor, Dennis Hastert, who gave up leadership but simply stayed on in the House to represent his district before retiring.

Instead, Pelosi intends to run in January to lead the House Democrats’ shrunken ranks as minority leader.

More than that, this “San Francisco liberal,” who is really a tough fighter from Baltimore’s streets, may yet rise again as “Madam Speaker” in 2012.

That’s not wishful thinking; it’s history.

Not only one of the greatest House speakers, Sam Rayburn also served in the post longer than anyone else. But not as often remembered is the fact that Rayburn’s 17 years presiding over the chamber was interrupted by Republicans — twice.

Rayburn served as speaker from 1940-1947, 1949-1953, and finally, from 1955 to his death in 1961.

Each time his Democrats lost their House majority, Rayburn would hunker down as minority leader, soon to spring back as speaker.

He played this game of revolving speakerships with Republican Joseph William Martin as power on Capitol Hill seesawed back and forth, much as it has been in more-recent years as each “wave” election produces a counterwave just two, or four, years hence.

So, what if Pelosi hands Boehner the gavel in January, only to retake it two years later?

Think about the history.

Democrats lost the House in Harry Truman’s first midterms in 1946. But “Give ’em Hell Harry” came back to win re-election two years later, helping Democrats reestablish a majority — and reinstall Rayburn as speaker.

Pundits already are talking about Obama emulating Truman’s path to victory in 2012. Obama could make his repeat of history complete by helping to bring Pelosi back as speaker — if she hangs tight in the minority for two years.

Such an arc would carry some real poetry, and satisfaction, for Democrats.

In the meantime, get ready for some knockdown political brawling on the House floor in the 112th Congress. Rayburn and Martin were, in truth, actually close friends. That’s certainly not the case between Pelosi and Boehner.

The reality is, we’re probably in for several years of back-and-forth, and likely some real hand-to-hand combat to fight it out for majority status.

I’m not terribly worried about short-term shifts in majority status, though.

Voter demographics clearly point to advantages for Democrats in the long run.

And besides, after he took the gavel back for the last time in 1955, Sam Rayburn began a strong Democratic majority that would endure for 40 years.

I’m content to let history repeat itself.

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. An earlier version of this article was first published as Enter Sam Rayburn’s Ghost, Or Prepare For Hand-to-Hand Combat In the House on Blogcritics.

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One Response to Capitol Idea: Enter Sam Rayburn’s Ghost, Or Prepare For Hand-to-Hand Combat In the House

  1. Madison says:

    I strongly oppose the election of Nancy Pelosi as minority leader. She has been wrongly demonized, but she nevertheless represents a distraction. Many moderate Democrats and moderate independents will drift away if she is given this role. If Democrats want to win in 2012, they need to pay attention to the role Rep. Pelosi has played in the past election – a rallying point for the Conservative Party.

    If you agree, please email your representative. There is generally an email contact page on each representative’s website.