Those following the leadership battle in the U.S. House of Representatives may want to recall the scenario facing members of Congress in 1986. It’s a familiar story: Almost a quarter of the members of the Democratic caucus are new. A potential challenger to the Democratic Party leader is arguing they need a new face and voice to represent the future of the party. The Democrats’ leadership trio is a generation older than the new members. A policy battle is looming over moderation or a swing to the left driven in part by the new members. But, a restless caucus is told there is no question that the votes are there for the current establishment leader’s election to the top post.
In ’86, Robert C. Byrd, (D–W.V.), then the sixty-nine year-old minority leader of the Senate Democrats, was set to take over as majority leader, the job he lost in 1980 when Republicans took control of the Senate. Eleven new Democratic senators, including the first Democratic female senator, had helped reclaim the majority for the Democrats. Many of them had no idea what the majority leader’s job was, but faced with a leader who had been in the Senate since 1959, they joined the push for younger, more telegenic leadership than the aging trio they had in Byrd, California’s Alan Cranston, and Hawaii’s Daniel Inouye.
The comparison to today’s leadership fight is not a perfect one. The House and its speaker are very different from the Senate and its majority leader. But there are lessons and cautionary tales for today—for House leadership and members—in the 1986 majority leader race and what led up to it. Lessons on understanding the role of the leader, on sharing power, and on facing a president adept and unafraid to use the communication vehicle reaching most Americans.
In 1986, the communications challenge facing opposition leadership was not a presidential Twitter account, but President Ronald Reagan’s mastery of what scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson called the “rhetoric of television.” Senators had complained to Byrd that House members were more recognizable than they were in their states because of C-SPAN’s televised House proceedings. So Byrd, overcoming opposition from Louisiana’s Russell Long and Mississippi’s John Stennis, allowed C-SPAN cameras into the Senate chamber. Now, in the race for majority leader, the newly televised Senate proceedings Byrd had facilitated were being used against him, reinforcing the argument that he wasn’t up to being the public face jousting with the “Great Communicator.”
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Byrd’s challenger, Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, faced an uphill battle against Byrd, even though he had announced his candidacy in June of 1986 in an effort to avoid the same fate as Lawton Chiles two years prior. (Florida’s Chiles had waited until a week before the leadership vote to challenge Byrd as minority leader). Nevertheless, Byrd easily beat back Johnston’s challenge for the same two simple reasons he beat Chiles: He knew how to count votes and lock them up early, and Senators realized there was more to the job than being the face of the party.
Senator Byrd’s secret to holding onto the leadership post is that he had been more than willing to cede that public role to others. He had tapped them to respond to Reagan’s Saturday afternoon radio addresses and for the televised Democratic response to the State of the Union. He was not a regular on the Sunday morning show circuit—leaving that to others—though when pressed to appear with Republican leader Senator Bob Dole, he would do so. He chose others to appear as the spokespeople for congressional delegations he led around the world, as he did with Sam Nunn on a visit with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Byrd gave his colleagues a studio in the basement of the Capitol to use then-nascent satellite technology to communicate in real time with their media back home. He gave them the tools, opportunities, and running room to showcase their talents. Not that he always liked it. But it was necessary to keeping the part of the job that he loved and was very, very good at. (I know, I was his press secretary and communications director for the Democratic Policy Committee that served the entire caucus.)
Byrd’s best communicating was off camera on the floor in the Well of the Senate every morning, when he laid out for reporters his legislative plans and—if he thought helpful to his cause—telegraphed anticipated maneuvers during the day.
His caucus was happy to leave that work to him because no one could do it better—and most did not want to take on the all-consuming job of juggling individual member needs or doing the work to gain his unsurpassed knowledge of Senate rules and legislative strategy. After all, getting their bills passed, even when vetoed, gave senators something to show as their Democratic agenda.
He publicly kidded about his appearance and ability as a spokesman while senators benefited from the committee assignments he had given them. They became the familiar faces of key Democratic initiatives: Daniel Patrick Moynihan on Medicare reform, Lloyd Bentsen on finance, Sam Nunn on defense.
The reports that Byrd had promised 1986 was his last run for leader—that he would step down in two years when John Stennis retired and he could take over as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee—were not entirely true, but the intimation that he would step down was enough.
It was his version of what Nancy Pelosi is calling a transition or bridge to new leadership.
In the end, Byrd did step down two years later. He was 71 years-old and went on to become the longest serving senator in history when he died in office in 2010.
Two people Byrd had elevated—Maine’s George Mitchell and Hawaii’s Danny Inouye—ran for majority leader in 1988 (along with Johnston, who gave it a second try). The popular Mitchell, a skilled negotiator and spokesman, prevailed.
Byrd had supported Mitchell to chair the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, where he helped take back the majority in 1986. Inouye, who had been a loyal number-three for years, had been rewarded with the chairmanship—with Rep. Lee Hamilton—of the joint Senate-House Iran-Contra Committee, which held three months of hearings in 1987 that were televised and watched by millions of Americans. Leading that committee was not a boon to him as expected, mainly because of one dramatic morning of testimony when former White House aide Oliver North became a national conservative hero.
North had insisted on and won the concession that he testify publicly with no initial private meetings with the committee. From the beginning of his testimony, he appeared to be the patriotic uniformed soldier berating and chastising the Congress, and in particular, the Committee, whose legitimacy he questioned. He effectively deflected away from his own illegal actions by questioning their patriotism in not supporting the Nicaraguan opposition (Contras) and thus justifying his dealing arms with Iran, the enemy that had only a few years before held Americans hostage. He was not effectively challenged in his testimony, won the morning, and maintained that the president never knew of his actions—which was later proven false. The afternoon put some dents in North’s armor, but he had become a conservative icon. This should serve as a warning to chairs of House committees today who will be investigating Trump.
Those are a few lessons and cautionary tales from 1986. Today’s opposition leadership, of course, is faced with the unique challenge of how to effectively lead in the age of Trump. The next speaker of the House of Representatives faces what may be unrealistic expectations. But the good of the country requires that those expectations be met, if not by one person, by several—and with more discipline than the Democrats have ever shown.
So, let’s give the last word to Senator Byrd and to that first Democratic female senator back in 1986. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, toward the end of her term as the longest-serving female senator, recalled what Byrd had done for her.
“He taught me to love and understand the Constitution of the United States, to follow the rules, to obey the law and fight like hell for what you believe in,” she said.
Not bad advice for the Democratic Party and its speaker—whoever that will be, in 2019.