On Nov. 9, 2016, about 12 hours after Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, convened a conference call with her fellow House Democrats. Most of them were still back home in their respective districts and still in shock. Not only would Trump be president, but the Senate remained in G.O.P. control, and — despite rosy predictions from Pelosi and her party’s pollsters — so did the House.
Several members on the call later told me they expected their leader to offer some show of contrition, an inventory of mistakes made or, at minimum, an acknowledgment that responsibility for the previous night’s disaster began at the top. Already, Trump’s sweep of what had for years been Democratic strongholds in the Rust Belt had led to a fast-congealing belief that the party had lost touch with white working-class voters.
But Pelosi sounded downright peppy on the call, noting a few vulnerable House seats that the Democrats had managed to hang onto. As for those working-class voters, “To say we don’t care about them is hard to believe,” Pelosi insisted, according to a transcript of the call I obtained. “I have to take issue and say I don’t think anybody was unaware of the anger.” The Democrats weren’t out of touch, she said. They just hadn’t made their case clearly enough to voters — or as she put it, “We have to get out there and say it in a different way.”
“It reminded me of that scene at the end of ‘Animal House,’ where Kevin Bacon is standing in the middle of all this chaos, screaming: ‘Remain calm! All is well!’ ” Scott Peters, a congressman from California who was on the call, told me. “After telling us before that we were going to pick up 20 seats, and we end up with six, underlaid with Clinton losing, I had no use for that kind of happy talk.” During and after Pelosi’s monologue, Democratic representatives who were listening texted and called one another incredulously, but Peters was one of the few who spoke up on the line. “I think we’re missing something,” he told Pelosi. “We’re just not hearing what’s on people’s minds.”
The discontent was palpable enough that two days after the conference call, Pelosi announced that leadership elections would be taking place less than a week later — leaving little time for a revolt to build, which some members I spoke to suspected was the point. By that time, one of Pelosi’s House allies, Doris Matsui of California, had already sent out an email to all the women in the Democratic House caucus, urging them to sign on to a letter of support for Pelosi as leader. Three second-term Democrats — Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, Kathleen Rice of New York and Ruben Gallego of Arizona — wrote to Pelosi, urging her to delay the elections. Rice would later tell her colleagues in a closed-door meeting, according to notes that were taken by a participant: “Look, I know from losing the state attorney general race in 2010: Losing sucks. But you have to get up the next day and take responsibility for it, take a hard look at every decision your team made, figure out what went wrong and learn from it.”