We Should Have Dumped Pelosi

by William Galston | November 18, 2010

On Thursday, the House Democratic caucus selected Nancy Pelosi as the minority leader. A few hours earlier, Quinnipiac University released its latest survey, which sheds some interesting light on that decision.

Included in the survey was a standard question that Quinnipiac has asked for several years: Is your opinion of Nancy Pelosi favorable, unfavorable, or haven’t you heard enough about her? Here’s the time series, starting just weeks after she became Speaker:

  2/21/07 5/25/07 10/31/07 11/12/08 3/25/10 11/17/10 Favorable 25  29                                                 22  26  25  25 Unfavorable 31 29 35 41 51 55 Haven’t heard enough 43 40 41 31 23 18

Two points stand out:

  1. The share of people who hadn’t heard enough about Pelosi to form an opinion declined by 25 points from February of 2007 until November 2010. During that period, the share with a favorable opinion remained constant at 25 percent, while those with an unfavorable opinion rose by 24 points, from 31 to 55 percent. In short, virtually everyone who received additional information about Pelosi over the past three and a half years reached a negative conclusion.
     
  2. This is a long-term development and not principally the result of the advertising campaign waged against her during the peak of the midterm election. By the time of Obama’s election, her unfavorable rating had already risen by ten points; by March of this year—eight months ago, it had risen another Ten points. Between March and November, it rose by only four more points. The inescapable fact is that whatever her strengths as an inside player, Pelosi’s public presence has proved monumentally unappealing to all except a small core of supporters.

This is especially significant because, other than President Obama, Nancy Pelosi is the best-known and most visible public face of the Democratic Party. The Quinnipiac survey showed that after nearly four years as Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid is no better known today than Pelosi was in early 2007: Fully 42 percent of respondents said that they hadn’t yet learned enough about Reid to form an opinion.

In the face of all this, Jonathan Allen and John Harris have just produced a dispiriting analysis titled “Why Dems don’t dump Pelosi.” They offer five explanations:

  1. Standing up to Obama, whom many House Democrats see as the principal architect of their defeat.
     
  2. The loyalty of key blocs, including the California delegation, women, and the Progressive Caucus.
     
  3. The fear factor—the Speaker’s demonstrated willingness to use rewards and punishments to keep people in line.
     
  4. Her skill in raising money, rallying the base, and devising legislative strategy.
     
  5. Pride: Many House Democrats believe that humiliating her would discredit what they have done during the past two years.

If Allen and Harris’s reporting is correct, the Democrats have convinced themselves that their agenda during the past two years is the moral equivalent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which may have cost their party dearly at the polls but was the right thing to do and was of such transcendent, transformational significance as to justify any degree of unpopularity.

Maybe that’s the verdict history will render (for the record, I doubt it). But in the here and now, the people who crafted and drove the 2009-2010 legislative agenda—including the cap-and-trade bill, reportedly one of Pelosi’s top personal priorities—are not the ones who paid the political price for it. What’s the logic of patiently rebuilding a Democratic majority—for which Pelosi deserves a considerable share of the credit—only to embark on a strategy seemingly calculated to destroy it? And why should the kinds of Democrats without whom no Democratic majority is possible expect anything better in the future?

This decision was the victory of inside baseball over common sense, and no amount of spin can change that.

Allen and Harris finish their piece with a section that begins, “There’s no one else.” Yes there was, and his decision not to challenge Pelosi is hardly a disqualification for party leadership. Why on earth should Steny Hoyer have mounted a kamikaze attack against colleagues who would rather be the majority in a minority party than do what’s necessary to regain the only majority that matters?

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/william-galston/79251/dump-pelosi-minority-leader-democrats