In politics, there’s nothing harder than realizing that it’s time to go.
People who have made their careers as Beltway politicians start to think they’ve become indispensable to Washington, when in fact it’s Washington that has become indispensable to them. And so they can’t or won’t recognize when the moment has come to move on to other things.
For Democrats Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, that moment has arrived. With the Democrats’ midterm losses, the two 74-year-olds should announce that when this session of Congress ends, they will relinquish their roles as leaders of their respective Democratic caucuses.
It’s not a matter of chronological age alone, mind you. One can certainly be an effective leader in his or her 70s. Look at Jerry Brown. Elected governor again at 72 to a job he had held for eight years as a young man, Brown — who just won a (second) second term at 76 — has proved to be an active and able force in California. He reminds one a little of William Gladstone, England’s “old man in a hurry,” whose last stint as British premier ended when he was 84.
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But let’s be honest. Physical age is, and should be, one consideration. Political age is another. Both Reid and Pelosi are tired faces, stale voices, entrenched presences in Washington.
Further, they’ve both had their opportunities as leaders. Pelosi made history as the first female speaker, a post she held from 2007 to the beginning of 2011. Reid became Senate majority leader the same year Pelosi assumed the speakership.
Pelosi’s Democrats lost the House back in 2010, but she has hung on as minority leader in the hopes that her party would soon rebound — and return her to the top job again. The recognition should be setting in that that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. But the day after the midterm elections, Pelosi said she would seek re-election as the Democrats’ House leader.
And now the Democrats have lost control of the Senate, too, which will soon spell the end of Reid’s tenure as majority leader. However, he is intent on following Pelosi’s example and becoming Senate minority leader, obviously in the hope of being restored to majority power in the near future.
Both Reid and Pelosi need to face a harsh reality of politics in an era of syncopated partisanship and polarization: After a certain period, congressional leaders’ caricatured images get so ingrained that they become electoral liabilities for their parties.
In a just political world, the same reality would apply to Mitch McConnell, who will become the next majority leader at 72. McConnell, after all, has made use of the filibuster an obstructionist art form in his effort to deny President Obama bipartisan accomplishments. Meanwhile, his battles with Reid — who has used parliamentary tactics of his own to deny Republican legislation a vote — have sometimes reduced Senate debate to the level of divorce proceedings between a couple who loathe each other. But McConnell’s cynical star is on the rise because of the Republicans’ midterm victory. The good news for Democrats: If the Kentuckian doesn’t change his tactics in the higher visibility post of majority leader, he could be headed for albatross status in relatively short order.
Some will no doubt protest that the midterm losses weren’t Pelosi’s or Reid’s fault, and that therefore they shouldn’t bear the consequences. But this isn’t about blame. Rather, it’s about giving the Democrats an opportunity to offer fresh faces, different voices, new approaches.
That shouldn’t mean simply handing the job to the next person in line. In the House, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, 75, is a dull, gray, congressional lifer. Jim Clyburn, the third Democrat in line, is 74.
In the Senate, the situation is somewhat different. Still, both the House and the Senate Democratic caucuses would benefit from spirited contests to choose their next leaders.
And if Reid and Pelosi don’t soon come to the conclusion on their own that it’s time to bow out?
Well, then, their fellow Democrats, recognizing that you can’t begin a new era with old leaders, should let both know that the time has come to go.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
© 2014 The Boston Globe