Jonathan Cohn

In Pelosi They Trust?

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Last week, when Nancy Pelosi first announced that she wanted to keep leading the House Democratic caucus, I wasn’t sure what to think about it. Now it seems increasingly likely that Pelosi will get her wish. And I’m still not sure what to think about it.

It’s not because I have mixed feelings about Pelosi’s tenure as Speaker. As I’ve written several times, I think she will go down as one of the most successful House leaders in modern history. The last two years, in particular, have witnessed the sort of legislative activity we haven’t seen since the 1960s. It could be another 50 years before we see its likes again.

Pelosi doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, obviously. But she deserves a lot. Just ask anybody who watched her conjure up a majority for health care reform in January and February of 2010, when most of Washington was convinced it was a lost cause. If choosing a leader for the Democrats over the next two years were simply a matter of recognizing past achievement, Pelosi would win that contest, hands down. And that’s true even if you believe--as some do but I do not--her leadership was a decisive factor in handing the Republicans control of the House next year.

But the stakes of this choice are too high to make it about who earned the post. It’s about who will do the best job going forward.

The case against Pelosi is that, rightly or wrongly, she’s become a public relations liability. You can’t win national elections in this country without winning over moderate voters. A lot of these voters think that the Democratic Party has drifted to the left, away from their beliefs, and they see Pelosi as a symbol of that drift. (I don't see things that way, but, then, I largely agree with her on the issues.) As such, they may simply ignore and reject whatever message she carries, even if they might otherwise find it persuasive on the merits.

The New York Times editorial page cited this argument on Sunday:

What [Democrats] need is what Ms. Pelosi has been unable to provide: a clear and convincing voice to help Americans understand that Democratic policies are not bankrupting the country, advancing socialism or destroying freedom. 

If Ms. Pelosi had been a more persuasive communicator, she could have batted away the ludicrous caricature of her painted by Republicans across the country as some kind of fur-hatted commissar jamming her diktats down the public’s throat. Both Ms. Pelosi and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, are inside players who seem to visibly shrink on camera when defending their policies, rarely connecting with the skeptical independent voters who raged so loudly on Tuesday.

The case for Pelosi starts with the fact that she’s actually done this job before--and done it well. Yes, she was in charge of the party that lost its majority last week. But she was also in charge of the party that won that majority back in 2006. And while her communications skill, or lack thereof, obviously matters, so does her ability to run the Democratic caucus, for reasons Greg Sargent laid out on Monday.

The key thing to understand is that we're about to enter a period of bruising procedural wars -- precisely the type of thing that Pelosi has already excelled at. Republicans are already discussing ways to starve the new health-care law by, say, limiting funding to agencies that would implement portions of it or using spending bills to block federal insurance regulations they don't like. The next minority leader will have to be ruthless in her willingness to use procedural tactics to combat this kind of stuff.

I just checked in with Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and he confirmed the above reading of her role to me. He allowed that Pelosi had made some missteps -- moving on "cap and trade" before health care, and failing to adequately sell the stimulus.

But he dismissed the idea that Dem losses last week are relevant, insisting that the new minority leader's chief role will be to "hold the line against repeal and keep the troops together and use the limited weapons available to the minority to put the Republicans on the defensive."

"She's in a stronger position to do that than others," Ornstein continued. "She showed in the last two years how strong she is as a strategist, and she may very well be able to use that strategic capacity to exacerbate some of the schisms that Republicans already have. She understands at least as well as anyone else how to use the process."

I confess part of me wants to see Pelosi remain as leader precisely because of the signal it sends. As both Steve Benen and Kevin Drum have noted, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to abandon, or at least downplay, their principles in the face of political adversity. Rallying around Pelosi, whose fealty to the party's core values is unambiguous, would be a welcome change.

Having said all of that, I might still be sympathetic to calls for a new leader if somebody could name a more appealing one. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is next in line. But he’s a Blue Dog in a caucus that has, thanks to electoral attrition, become more liberal not less. And he’s not at all the type to draw the sorts of contrasts that I, like Sargent, think Democrats need to be drawing. Next in line would be James Clyburn, but I don’t see why he’d be better than Pelosi. 

That’s not to knock any of their leadership skills, by the way. Those two also get some credit for the legislation of the last few years and, based on the latest reports, Hoyer at least has secured a role for himself in the next Congress. But it reminds me that the Democrats' real goal should be grooming a new generation of leaders. About that, I have no mixed feelings at all.

Update: The original version of this contained a coding error that hid part of the text. I've since fixed it. I think. 

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