Tug of War

By

Most of the time, House Democrats can't get the press to pay
attention to them. But there's nothing like a good fight over Iraq
to get the cameras rolling. That's why, last Wednesday, a throng of
reporters staked out a Capitol Hill meeting room where the House's
Democratic caucus had convened to debate its increasingly obvious
split over Iraq. A media advisory had promised that Democratic
leaders would talk to the press at 10 a.m., after the meeting. But,
as the clock ticked past the designated hour--20 minutes, then
30--the Cannon Caucus Room's heavy doors remained shut. Finally,
they swung open, and out strode Dennis Kucinich, of all people.
Seeming to relish a momentary return to the spotlight, the dovish
ex-presidential candidate stepped to the microphones and declared
dramatically: "The debate continues inside! We are trying to
achieve unanimity!" But he apparently didn't expect to find it.
Rather than return to the bull session, the diminutive
representative grabbed his coat and disappeared down a nearby
staircase.A few minutes later, the doors opened again, and dozens of Democrats
poured forth--many looking grim-faced. The resplendently attired
minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, took to the microphones, accompanied
by three other senior Democrats, and strained to present the
meeting as a success. "We heard from many, many members of our
caucus," she said. "And what we heard was a respect for our
differing views on the subject of the timing of when we leave Iraq."
In other words: no consensus.

That was hardly a surprise. Even the Democrats at the microphones
couldn't agree. Standing beside Pelosi was her deputy, the
garrulous silver-haired Democratic whip, Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Only the week before, Pelosi and Hoyer had delivered starkly
divergent responses to Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha's dramatic
pre-Thanksgiving call for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq. Within
days, Pelosi had endorsed Murtha's plan, while Hoyer released a
statement warning of a national security "disaster" if U.S. troops
exited too quickly. A just-published Washington Post story about
how moderates like Hoyer were unhappy with Pelosi had everyone on
edge. At a breakfast that very morning, Roll Call would later
report, Hoyer had exchanged tense words with one of Pelosi's top
confidantes, George Miller of California. Murtha, meanwhile, was
making his irritation with Hoyer known to other members.

Just the sort of thing the press wanted to know about. With
increasing agitation, Pelosi batted down questions about her
differences with Hoyer-- claiming, absurdly, to be unfamiliar with
the specifics of her top deputy's widely discussed statement. "I
was busy last week," Pelosi said curtly. "I don't know the context
in which he made that statement." As for Hoyer, he dashed off
before the questioning began. Like an unhappily married couple,
Hoyer and Pelosi find dodging questions a lot easier than discussing
their problems with each other.

Superficially, House Democrats have stood fairly united since the
2004 election. But under the surface lie deep fissures between the
caucus's liberal Pelosi faction and its moderate Hoyer
faction--particularly over the Iraq war. Until recently, however,
Pelosi had kept a low profile on the war--presumably aware that her
Bay Area-liberal image goes over in rural swing districts about as
well as erotic performance art. "She has been personally very
skeptical of Iraq from the get-go and I think in the interest of
the broader caucus has put aside her own strong views and tried to
keep the caucus unified," says Adam Schiff, a moderate Democrat
from California. That's why some Democrats were stunned that she so
conspicuously embraced Murtha's withdrawal plan earlier this month.
To some Democrats, Pelosi should have let Murtha remain in the
lead. "Murtha was clearly the key messenger on this," says a former
House Democratic leadership aide. Now the Murtha plan can also be
called the Pelosi plan, with all the culturo-political baggage that
entails.

But the dynamics of Pelosi's world made keeping mum impossible--even
if it meant alienating moderates like Hoyer. For months, she has
faced rising pressure on several fronts. Within the caucus, there
is her emboldened liberal base, including the 70 members of the
House's Out of Iraq Caucus, who increasingly believe they speak for
the public. "They stand up in meetings saying the American people
want to get out," says a senior House Democratic aide. (Never mind
that polls show the public still values success over withdrawal.)
When she ran for leader in 2002, Pelosi promised to draw clearer
distinctions with Republicans, and that's what her liberal allies
expect. "The American people are thirsty for Democrats to offer an
alternative on Iraq, and I would argue that it's a dereliction of
our responsibility not to provide one, " says Florida
Representative Robert Wexler. Pelosi is also strongly influenced by
her highly liberal inner circle. In addition to her top confidant,
the combative Miller, others with Pelosi's ear include Rosa DeLauro
of New Haven; Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto; and Jan Schakowsky, a fiery
crusader from Chicago's upscale Lakefront area. All are critical of
the war.

Perhaps even more relevant is what Pelosi hears outside of
Washington. Liberal donors on the fund-raising circuit constantly
tell her that Democrats are timid on Iraq. "She's been catching a
lot of heat on the road," says the senior House aide. Pelosi has
even been taking flak in her district for her relatively low
profile on Iraq. "Pelosi has played it safe, placing politics and
fund-raising over policy and conscience," charged a May 2005 letter
in The San Francisco Chronicle. Another fumed that "Pelosi does
accept our illegal invasion and our continued occupation of a
country whose people want us out. I find it difficult to accept
that she speaks for San Francisco to the world." Last month, one
vituperative antiwar blogger declared her the "Shame of San
Francisco." Says a House Democratic leadership aide, "You've got our
base saying, `Where the hell have you been? You've got no spine.'"

For Hoyer, maintaining his centrist, give-war-a-chance position has
been far easier. One reason is his district: Whereas President Bush
tallied just 15 percent in Pelosi's backyard, he pulled 42 percent
in Hoyer's. Hoyer's base of House support, meanwhile, consists
largely of the 80 or so Democrats who voted for the Iraq war
resolution and who supported Pelosi's main rival in the 2002
leader's race: Martin Frost of Texas. Frost, who has since retired,
was a pro- gun Iraq war supporter who insisted that House Democrats
must moderate their image--especially on national security--if they
hoped to win conservative swing districts and retake the House.
Since Frost's exit, Hoyer, who also supported the war, has carried
the moderates' torch. Earlier this year, for instance, Hoyer
huddled with 15 like-minded House moderates--including such hawks as
Ike Skelton of Missouri, Jane Harman of California, and John Spratt
of South Carolina--to develop a national security strategy meant in
part to show that House Democrats take the issue seriously. And,
while his overall voting record is fairly liberal, Hoyer is also
much closer than Pelosi to big business and K Street lobbyists; he
has split with her on recent free-trade votes and on bankruptcy
reform.

The differences between Pelosi and Hoyer are stylistic as well as
ideological. Pelosi likes to crusade for grand moral causes--be it
aids policy in the 1980s or China's human rights record in the
1990s or Iraq now. Hoyer is more of a pragmatic, old-school
politico. "Steny is almost a caricature of a politician," says a
senior House Democratic staffer. "He's always schmoozing." Pelosi
is an awkward public speaker prone to malapropisms. (Last week, she
referred to defending America's "nuclear, biological, and chemical
plants." Biological?) Hoyer, by contrast, delights in having an
audience, and he often invites reporters to his office for long
bull sessions.

But the Hoyer-Pelosi relationship is perhaps most defined by
rivalry. In 2001, Pelosi defeated Hoyer in a hard-fought race for
Democratic whip, during which they clashed about the ideological
face of the caucus. The friction has never quite cooled. While
Pelosi cuts a sunny public profile--always dressed to the nines and
flashing a radiant smile--Democrats say she runs a tough, even
paranoid, political machine with a vengeful disposition toward
current and former adversaries. This has been particularly true of
Frost and his backers: Frost supporters have been passed over for
key committee assignments, and precious few are included in
important leadership and political-strategy discussions. Pelosi has
also effectively exiled Frost himself from the Democratic political
arena. She openly opposed his recent bid for Democratic National
Committee chairman. And, when a major liberal interest group
recently proposed to hire Frost for a key position, according to
one source, Pelosi sent word that she wouldn't work with him.

Pelosi has no choice but to work with Hoyer. But she doesn't always
like it. In April, for instance, she blew up at the whip after he
and 71 other moderates defected to vote for the Republican-backed
bankruptcy-reform bill. Pelosi effectively accused Hoyer of selling
out to his corporate donors. Moderates, noting that they'd voted
for virtually the same bill several times in past years--and would
look foolish if they switched now--were appalled. "She seems to
thrive on conflict," says a former House Democratic leadership aide.
"When she wins a leadership race, she never stops running against
that person. She beat Steny, but she has never stopped punishing
him for running in the first place."

The Pelosi camp downplays any rift. "They're not best friends," the
current leadership aide says. "But I don't think she goes after
anybody who disagrees with her." When asked about her relationship
with Hoyer, however, Pelosi tends to look like she's sucking a
lemon. "She gets stiff and reticent to say anything nice," as one
Hoyer backer puts it. Sure enough, at a recent press conference,
Pelosi replied frostily to a question about their relationship.
"It's fine," she snapped through a steely smile. "Mr. Hoyer and I go
way back. . .. And I do not understand why you are making such a
big issue of this."

The Pelosi-Hoyer rivalry may next play out in proxy-war fashion in a
race for Democratic caucus vice chair. The current front-runner is
New York Representative Joseph Crowley, one of Hoyer's top allies.
Democrats are watching to see how much weight Pelosi throws behind
another candidate, her friend Schakowsky. The position itself is
fairly meaningless, but its outcome could be symbolic for
Pelosi--especially if she fears, as some suspect, that Hoyer might
someday challenge her position as House leader. That becomes more
likely if House Democrats don't meet soaring expectations in the
2006 midterm elections.

Meanwhile, House moderates are in the process of reasserting
themselves on Iraq. A group that includes Hoyer, led by Californian
Ellen Tauscher, is drafting a set of principles about Iraq policy.
Although it calls for a substantial phased troop withdrawal, the
document implicitly favors stability in Iraq over exiting, and it
could serve as a counterpoint to the Murtha plan for moderate
Democratic House candidates. But some moderates fear the damage has
been done. "Nancy can raise money, there ain't no question about
that," says one moderate House Democrat allied with Hoyer. "But, as
far as sophisticated political acumen and political skills, it's
just not there." Unfortunately, for Democrats, neither is an easy
reconciliation for this feuding couple.

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