The Democrats’ Real Diversity Problem

Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York.

The news outlets that cover Congress obsessively have been reporting that Joseph Crowley, a Democratic representative from Queens, appears perched to succeed Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House Democrats.

Of course, Ms. Pelosi has no known plans to go anywhere. But many who monitor congressional races closely sense that she might emerge from the midterm elections in a vulnerable position. That is, some Democratic candidates running in swing districts will decide — following Conor Lamb, who recently pulled a big upset in a Republican-leaning district in southwestern Pennsylvania — that they’ll improve their chances of winning by declaring that they will not vote to make her the speaker should their party take back control of the House. If that number turns out to be on the high side, Ms. Pelosi’s ability to corral the necessary 218 votes to clinch the speakership will be called into question, and another Democrat might challenge her.

Mr. Crowley, according to these reports, is getting close to locking down the right to be that Democrat. My own reporting affirms that he’s generally well liked by most Democrats and, as the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, is adept at the kind of glad-handing that someone in his position needs to do to secure promises of future votes.

Well, good for him — if he has done the work, he has done the work. But aren’t there a couple of things that are strange about this picture?

The first issue is the diversity angle. Democrats venerate diversity as they do no other value. Yet the party’s Senate leader is a white man, Charles Schumer. Many will wonder whether a party that now gets nearly half of its votes from nonwhite people — 46 percent of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote was from nonwhites — should be led nationally by two white people.

The full picture is actually even a little weirder. Mr. Crowley would not be a shoo-in should Ms. Pelosi not be able to get the votes. There are two others who want the job: Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the current No. 2 and Ms. Pelosi’s rival of 50 years; and Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged Ms. Pelosi two years ago for the minority leader job and lost, 134 votes to 63.

So, should Ms. Pelosi decide not to seek the speakership again, the main contenders to replace her, at least as of now, would be three white men. For a Democratic Party leadership post in 2018! That sounds more like a race for Queens borough president in 1961.

To me, though, the diversity issue isn’t even the main problem. Even if two white men ended up leading the Democrats, no one would doubt that the Democratic Party is the multiracial party. That much is well established, and presumably Mr. Crowley (or whoever) would name a Rainbow Coalition-ish leadership team and surely have a woman as his No. 2.

The bigger problem is geographic. If Mr. Crowley became the House Democrats’ leader, the Democrats would be led by two legislators from New York City. And that is deeply weird.

The Democrats are coming off an election in which their presidential candidate won only 487 of the nation’s 3,141 counties. Four years before, Barack Obama won just 689 against Mitt Romney. The party is in severe geographic retreat, and it has happened with alarming speed.

If I told you that Democrats once controlled the governors’ mansions in the unlikely states of Tennessee, Wyoming, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, what year would you think I was referring to? Maybe 1987? Nope. Up through the 2010 elections, Democrats governed all these states. Likewise, the Democrats had a House majority until those elections. They controlled seats in large swaths of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, both Dakotas, Indiana, West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio.

They held up to 257 seats in those days. They got decimated in 2010 and 2014, and maybe there just wasn’t that much they could have done about it. But they could have identified some young comers from swing and heartland states and elevated them to positions of greater prominence than they did. For example, in the 114th Congress (2015-2016), the Democrats had nine leadership positions — and only one was held by a representative from a state that didn’t have a coastline.

And if you’re wondering whether the Republicans do the same thing in reverse, no, they don’t. Their Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, comes from their Southern base, but their last three House leaders have been from Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois — two purple states and one blue one. Kevin McCarthy, the party’s No. 2 in the House and the leading contender to replace Paul Ryan as its leader this fall, comes from California.

Mr. Schumer is a very skilled legislative leader. So for that matter is Ms. Pelosi, whatever her perceived liabilities. And maybe Mr. Crowley is Lyndon Johnson and William Pitt the Elder rolled into one. But if Democrats charge into 2020 advertising themselves as the party of New York and California, the rest of the country will notice.

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