DECEMBER 11, 2006
In the beginning--1994, that is--Newt Gingrich created theRepublican majority. For 40 years, a Republican void had existed inthe Democratic Congress, and then Newt made the ten-point Contractfor America. The country saw it was good and bestowed the power ofthe land upon the Republicans that Newt had created in his ownimage. And, as they took dominion over Congress, Newt's followersrejoiced in the world he had created. They devised revolutionaryschemes big and small--everything from new committee structures toquashing daily ice deliveries to congressional offices. But, mostimportantly, they pledged to work together in peace and harmony toensure that Newt's Contract with America was fulfilled. It was,after all, the very reason voters had placed them in control.
Twelve years later, as Nancy Pelosi fashions her Democraticmajority, she must surely envy the simplicity of the Republicans'1994 creation myth. For one thing, as opposed to the Republicanrevolution--with its clearly sketched ideals of fiscalresponsibility and term limits--there is no commonly agreed- uponstory about how the Democrats came to power this fall. Progressivesinsist that their antiwar position inspired the passion of theelectorate; moderates, including a crop of freshmen from the Southand West, claim it was their middle- of-the-road social andeconomic views that led Democrats from the wilderness. And, unlikethe Contract-toting newcomers of '94, who marched in devotedlockstep with their leader, Pelosi's troops--who include everyonefrom Barbara Lee, a Berkeley-based sponsor of a "Department ofPeace," to Heath Shuler, a culturally conservative ruralpopulist--have dueling agendas of their own.
Throw in a generous helping of old-bull chairmen like JohnDingell--a 51- year congressman who already spent 14 years runningthe Energy and Commerce Committee in the last Democraticregime--eagerly returning to their perches of power, and Pelosidoesn't have a revolution on her hands so much as a restoration.The result is a caucus that swirls with grievances old and new,suspicion and mistrust, ego and entitlement. And, to make mattersworse, instead of a Newt-in-shining-armor, reigning over thismiasma is the battle- scarred, grudge-bearing Pelosi herself.
If the 1994 Republican victory was a revolution, the post-2006Democratic House, with its fierce ideological conflicts, may lookmore like sectarian strife. With different party factions claimingcredit for the party's success, each feels emboldened to assertitself. Take the liberal crusaders hoping for a party-wideideological revolution--the 71-member Congressional ProgressiveCaucus. If the progressives have a certain swagger these days, it'sbecause they're convinced it was their vision--opposition to thewar, unapologetic Bush- bashing--that won Democrats the election.What's more, House liberals consider Pelosi one of their own. Theirvotes have been critical to her ascension into the Houseleadership, and the progressive ranks include some of Pelosi'sclosest allies, including George Miller of California, Rosa DeLauroof Connecticut, and rising star Michael Capuano of Massachusetts.
Still, the liberals are highly--and not irrationally-- suspiciousthat moderates plan to shunt them into the attic like so many crazyrelatives. Compounding their fear is Pelosi's thus-far cautiousgoverning record. And, if Pelosi is equally wary of her liberalcheerleaders, it's understandable. Consider the current co-chair ofthe progressive caucus: Barbara Lee, best known as Congress's lonevote against the resolution authorizing the use of force inresponse to September 11--an act that led to death threats againsther. Lee, who co-sponsored the bill to create a Department of Peacewith Dennis Kucinich, also recently battled with Republicans toname an Oakland post office after a controversial peace activist.This is not, one hazards to guess, the party face Pelosi wants topresent to the public.
Post offices and peace departments aside, the progressives willexert a strong pull on Pelosi when it comes to the war in Iraq.House liberals, led by Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, amember of Lee's Out of Iraq caucus, have been trying to cut offfunds for the war as a way of forcing an immediate withdrawal.Should McGovern continue pressing his idea, Pelosi will be facedwith a grim choice between a debate that will be manna to Fox Newsand charges from the left that she's being timid on the issue thatthey say won Democrats back the House.
Pelosi may find it hard to swallow other progressive caucus ideas aswell. While her own limited agenda includes broadly popularmeasures like lobbying reform and lower prescription-drug prices,Kucinich and John Conyers have sponsored a universal health carebill--a subject that stokes passions on the left but makesmoderates blanch. Liberals will also make smaller, symbolicdemands. Lee recently explained to The Nation, for instance, herdesire for more Asian Pacific Islanders to testify as witnesses atcongressional hearings. The spoils of victory.
Contesting this liberal faction are the House's moderate andconservative Democrats--or, as one House Democratic aide callsthem, "The New Dogs"--a combination of about 100 New Democrats andBlue Dogs determined to keep Democrats on a centrist course. TheNew Dogs insist that several Democratic wins in conservativedistricts validated this strategy. "Our bark is louder than everand we are going to be heard," outgoing Blue Dog co-chair DennisCardoza recently declared.
Barbara Lee's moderate counterpart is the leader of the moderateHouse New Democrat Coalition and Blue Dog Democrat Ellen Tauscherof California. Tauscher has infuriated liberals with votes toimpeach Bill Clinton and to back the Iraq war. She once evenexplained that she came to Washington to represent her district andnot "to be a Democrat." Tauscher recently warned in The New YorkTimes that House Democrats must perform a "very difficult kabukidance" to placate liberals without actually being very liberal.That sort of talk has made her one of the left's favorite newintra-party heretics; in the blogosphere, Tauscher has been dubbeda "corporate whore" (and worse), and liberal activists are alreadytalking about mounting a 2008 primary challenge against her. Pelosimight not mind if they do.
The House's moderate and conservative Democrats won't just make itdifficult for Pelosi to come up with a message that will pleaseeveryone. They pose the danger of aligning with Republicans oncertain votes--perhaps national security and immigration--andundermining the new speaker's control of the House. The Blue Dogs'obsession with balanced budgets, for instance (their website's homepage features a running debt clock), could mean clashes withliberals over budget priorities. And, while even moderates considerIraq a catastrophe, few want to align with liberal calls forimmediate exit or, worse, cutting off war funds.
Finally, there is the freshman class of 2006. Perhaps nowhere is thecontrast between the House of Gingrich and the House of Pelosiclearer. In the first Gingrich Congress, the freshmen were fearlessrevolutionaries, barely concerned with their own survival. (Indeed,many imposed term limits on themselves.) But many freshly mintedDemocratic congressmen face perilous reelections in two years. Thefreshman class is also divided internally: On the one hand areculturally conservative populists like North Carolina's Shuler; onthe other are anti-Iraq crusaders like former social worker CarolShea-Porter of New Hampshire. As one former House Democratic aidesays of freshmen from conservative areas: "They will be scaredshitless and have to vote like Republicans--or they can vote theirconscience and enjoy their two years in office."
Beyond these ideological fissures, the Democratic caucus's diversefactions are plagued by intense power struggles. African Americans,for example, will have unprecedented clout in the new House, withfour committee chairmen and the House's number-three leadershipposition of majority whip, which will be held by South Carolina'sJames Clyburn. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is sure toexpect handsome rewards for this influence--for instance, by way ofbudget funding for urban social and anti-poverty programs.
Despite its new influence, the CBC comes to power in a defensiveposture, with animus toward Pelosi. In 2003, Pelosi irked the groupwhen she passed over Louisiana's William Jefferson to run theDemocratic Congressional Campaign Committee (dccc). Later, whenJefferson was caught with
$90,000 in his freezer and accused of corruption, Pelosi called forhis removal from the House Ways and Means Committee. CBC memberswere alternately described as "furious," "outraged," and "on thebrink of open revolt," and they called the move discriminatory. Andit's not just Pelosi: Relations are even worse between the CBC andRahm Emanuel, the new Democratic caucus chairman and a party heroafter managing this year's House elections as dccc chairman. CBCmembers bitterly complained to Pelosi that the often caustic Emanuelharassed them over their party dues and fund-raising output, didn'tsolicit their campaign advice, and didn't hire enough black aides.The tension between the CBC and caucus leaders is likely tointensify, thanks to Pelosi's decision this week that AlceeHastings, a former federal judge impeached in 1989, is tooethically tainted to chair the House Intelligence Committee.
Another of Pelosi's headaches will be the struggle to keep hercommittee chairmen in line. Pelosi has signaled that she wants toretain the kind of centralized power over committees thatRepublicans established, rather than revert to the system offreelancing chairmen that prevailed in the old Democratic majority.But that might not be easy to explain to the ancien regime. TheseBourbon restorationists, including the 80-year-old Dingell, one ofthe few Democrats whose caricature appears on the storied wall ofWashington's Palm steakhouse, view the Democratic victory asrestoring them to their rightful positions of power. Pelosi hasalready battled 77-year-old Judiciary Chairman Conyers, whorecently introduced a bill exploring the possibility of George W.Bush's impeachment. Other senior chairmen with, shall we say, highconfidence in their own judgment include the 76-year-old CharlieRangel at Ways and Means, who recently had to be talked out ofpursuing the idea of a draft, and the 66- year-old Barney Frank atFinancial Services, recently shushed after proposing hearings ongays in the military. And it's not even January yet.
Pelosi's biggest challenge may be overcoming her own notoriousfixation on personal feuds and grudges. As minority leader, Pelosihas alienated an impressive number of the people she'll have towork with. She (and other House leaders) berated Collin Peterson ofMinnesota and nearly threw him off the Agriculture Committee afterhe voted for the Republicans' 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill.When Dingell faced a strong primary challenge in 2002, Pelosidonated
$10,000 to his opponent. And Pelosi's once-warm relationship withCalifornian Jane Harman has dissolved into outright hostility afterPelosi declared she wouldn't name Harman to chair the IntelligenceCommittee, either. And, as any House observer knows, Pelosi can'teven rely on chummy relations with her chief deputy, House MajorityLeader Steny Hoyer. Pelosi has been wary of Hoyer since heunsuccessfully challenged her for the position of House minoritywhip in 2001 and is mistrustful of his centrist instincts; hencePelosi's recent endorsement of Jack Murtha against Hoyer for themajority leader post.
Somehow, Pelosi and Hoyer must find a way to stitch together thesedueling factions and personalities--as well as to mend their ownrelationship. Some Democrats argue that the imperative of holdingthe majority will bring them together. "Nobody wants to end up inthe minority again, and that's obviously a big carrot or stick,depending on how you look at it," says a senior House aide. Butthat's no simple task when people don't even agree on how theyescaped the minority in the first place.
Perhaps it's not a creation myth that the Democrats need, then, somuch as a vision of the apocalypse. The last time a wave of antiwarreformers joined the House was in the 1974 election, defined byWatergate and the aftermath of Vietnam. It would seem to have beena heady time for Democrats. But, as John A. Farrell recounts in hisbook Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century, "[L]iberals in thecaucus were bent on ideological purity, while conservatives werefeeling spiteful and neglected." Even a weak Gerald Ford was ableto exploit the fissures, and Democrats "splintered over militaryspending, energy policy, environmental protection and othermeasures." The Times concluded that House Democrats were "fracturedtoday by a rancor of an intensity seldom seen. . .. Rarely has aparty in Congress promised so much and accomplished so little."Democrats had better hope their restoration goes more smoothly thanthat. Or they can plan on hauling all their ideological andpsychological baggage back to the minority.