For Steny Hoyer, it’s always Nancy, Nancy, Nancy

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by House women Democrats, announces that she wants to remain as the top Democrat in the House of...
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., accompanied by House women Democrats, announces that she wants to remain as the top Democrat in the House of...
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Maybe you like his politics. Maybe you don’t. But if you’ve got any empathy in you, you’ve got to feel at least a little for Steny Hoyer today.

Hoyer is the second-ranking Democrat in the House. He has been there for 10 years now, and after what happened today, he’s probably destined to always be the second-ranking Democrat in the House—and never anything more.

That’s because Nancy Pelosi announced that she’s staying on as the House Democratic leader for another two years. And that means that Hoyer, who is 73 and who would have moved up to replace her as the Democratic leader, is stuck in the No. 2 slot. Again.

This has been happening for years. Decades, really. The Pelosi-Hoyer rivalry is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever observed in Congress, or anywhere in politics. It’s been intense, it’s been relentless, it’s been full of unexpected twists and turns, and it literally goes back a half-century, when Pelosi and Hoyer were both interns in the office of Daniel Brewster, the old Maryland senator. The one common thread is this: No matter what happens, Pelosi always seems to end up on top.

It really all started in 1998, when Pelosi and Hoyer began angling for spot in the Democratic leadership. Their campaign was contingent on Democrats taking back the majority—which didn’t happen in ’98, so the campaign was called off. They picked it up in the run-up to the 2000 campaign, but again Democrats fell short, so there never was a vote. But it was starting to get heated. Lines were being drawn. Pelosi was the choice of liberals in the caucus, Hoyer the favorite of more moderate, business-friendly “New Democrats.”

Finally in 2001 there was an opening, for whip, the number two slot. The campaign got ugly. The vote was called. Pelosi won, 118-95. A year later, Dick Gephardt stepped down, and Pelosi became the Democratic leader—the first woman to hold that job. That opened the No. 2 job for Hoyer, as a sort of consolation prize.

But that wasn’t the end. Pelosi consolidated her power, filled her inner leadership circle with allies, always eyeing Hoyer and his crew with suspicion. Hoyer’s allies would try to climb into leadership, but Pelosi would block them. I stood in Cannon Building in 2006 and watched as the results of a race for caucus vice-chairman—the number four slot—were announced. The guy everyone thought had the votes—Hoyer’s guy—lost to a guy no one thought had any votes—but who it turned out had been Pelosi’s secret choice all along. The press was stunned. Hoyer’s people were stunned. This was my introduction to the rivalry.

Later that year, when Democrats reclaimed the majority, Pelosi tried to take out Hoyer once and for all and recruited John Murtha to challenge him for majority leader. Even for some of Pelosi’s allies, it was too cold. Hoyer had been a good No. 2, they said, a loyal one, and they stuck by him. But it was Pelosi who got to be Speaker for four years.

When Democrats got clobbered in 2010 and lost their majority, Hoyer thought his moment had finally arrived. Surely Pelosi would step aside in the face of a 60-seat loss. But she didn’t  and he was powerless to stop her. So maybe he’s not surprised by what happened today. At this point, he’s probably used to it.

For Steny Hoyer, it's always Nancy, Nancy, Nancy