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Analysis | Democrats are seeing a generational shift in leadership — literally

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You can’t really say that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)’s announcement on Thursday that she would not seek re-election to lead the Democratic Party caucus came as a surprise. Pelosi has held the top spot for nearly two decades, and her party’s losses in last week’s midterm elections mean she would have been demoted to minority leader in the upcoming 118th Congress. As good a time to step back as any.

But there was also an inevitable undertone. In 2020, Joe Biden shrugged off questions about his age by suggesting he would be a bridge to a new generation of leaders — something many in his party championed. Before the midterm elections, this argument became a way for Democrats in contested races to speak out against both Biden and Pelosi: It wasn’t that they didn’t like the top Democrats, they just wanted “a new generation.”

With Pelosi’s announcement this week, that generational shift is now in play. The Democrats likely to take the top two positions in the House caucus are literally from a different generation than Pelosi, 82, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), 83, who also announced that he will not would do. t try to renew his position. The new generation is at the door.

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It’s not that generations are hard and fast things. People tend to put off the Pew Research Center definitions, in part because Pew actually formulates clear boundaries. Comparing the ages of national leaders to those demarcations, we can see how power trickles down from generation to generation… slowly.

Here are the ages (and therefore generations) of the president, vice president, and senate president pro tempore over the past 40 years. In the 1980s, they all belonged to Pew’s “greatest” generation – the generation before the generation before the baby boom. For the past 10 years they have all been boomers or members of the silent generation.

Vice President Harris isn’t the first boomer to hold that position; Dan Quayle was in 1993. But she’s the youngest boomer ever to do that, though she’s older now than Quayle was then.

The position of Senate President pro tempore is largely ceremonial and usually goes to the most senior member of the majority party, who is often the eldest member of the party. Hence, the gray lines are well above the lines for president and vice president.

Now let’s look at the shift in House leadership. Interestingly, the Republican Party leadership has been younger than the Democratic Party leadership in recent years, in part because GOP leadership has been much more fiercely contested in the post-tea party era. (You’ll notice that the lines below are labeled Leader and Whip/Second-Class Member. The fact that the party’s senior official in the majority usually becomes Speaker of the House means that the “Leader” position then goes to the person who would otherwise would be orphan whip. It’s all crazy, but it is what it is.)

On the far right is the generation change for the Democrats should Pelosi be replaced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.), 52, as many political observers expect, and should Hoyer be replaced by Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), who is 59. The party would go from two silent generation leaders to a boomer and one in Gen X.

It’s important to recognize what this shift is like special important to Democrats. Breaking down Partisans by age using national registration data from L2 shows that 2 in 5 Democrats are members of the youngest two generations, the Millennials and Gen Z. Only a quarter of Republicans are. In other words, there is more pressure for Democratic leaders to be younger and represent younger members of the party than for Republicans, about half of whom are boomers or older.

There hasn’t been any similar pressure on the Senate side yet. Senate leadership tends to be older, as senators tend to be older, both because of the age requirements to serve in that chamber and because of the House-to-Senate election pipeline. So Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.), 71, is a relatively young leader as a member of the baby boom generation — but also older than about 80 percent of Democrats.

Pelosi is over 95 percent Democrat, a position of hers holding office for as long as she does, with few complaints from her party’s grassroots. But after years of rumbling, she and the party seem to have recognized that the time for generational change has, in fact, finally arrived.

Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.

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