Home / Culture and Society / Enter Sam Rayburn’s Ghost, Or Prepare For Hand-to-Hand Combat In the House

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

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Nancy Pelosi has given scant indication of her future intentions after she hands over the speaker’s gavel to Republican John Boehner in January.

She could do as Newt Gingrich did at the end of his speakership in 1999, and resign his seat and walk away. She could follow her immediate predecessor, Dennis Hastert, who gave up leadership but simply stayed on in the House to represent his district before retiring.

Or Pelosi could choose to get herself elected as the Democrats’ minority leader, and fight to return as 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.

But 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 — regardless of whether Pelosi is there for the fight, or not.

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.


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About Scott Nance

  • And then maybe Pelosi can get a big building named after her like Rayburn…

    As for Obama emulating Truman, I can see it. After all, Truman was one of the most bigoted and divisive presidents we’ve ever had. Or maybe a mix of Truman and Wilson, another virulent racist and warmonger who the Democrats love to emulate.


  • You’re right. Obama could emulate Truman’s 1948 path to victory in 2012–as long as the Republicans nominate Thomas E. Dewey.

  • it’s okay to let a thought run longer than a single sentence