The House Democratic Caucus, or what remains of it, will decide tomorrow to keep Nancy Pelosi as its leader.
Without passing judgment of the wisdom of that move, it is certainly fair to suggest that Pelosi owes her fellow Democrats a better explanation than she has provided thus far for her party’s current misfortune, and a better argument for how she proposes to address the dire circumstance of Democrats.
To recap: After getting her ducks in a row following the most profound drubbing of House Democrats in 64 years, House Speaker Pelosi announced, via Twitter, that she intended to lead the party’s caucus for another two years.
If Pelosi wants to be an effective minority leader, however, she’s going to need to do more than Tweet.
After the results were tabulated Nov. 2, a debate opened about whether Pelosi, who took almost as many hits as did President Obama during this year’s brutal midterm election campaign, might let someone else occupy the diminished position of House minority leader.
But Nancy@SpeakerPelosi announced three days after the election: “Driven by the urgency of creating jobs & protecting #hcr, #wsr, Social Security & Medicare, I am running for Dem Leader.”
For the uninitiated: “hcr” is health care reform, “wsr” is Wall Street reform and @SpeakerPelosi is, in light of recent developments, going to need a new Twitter handle.
Pelosi is also going to need to offer more than a 92-character explanation for why she thinks her continued leadership is necessary after an election that reduced her caucus to its smallest numbers since 1947.
Pelosi’s mentor, California Congressman George Miller, says: “We have many talented people in our caucus, each of whom has contributed to our success over the past few years, but I believe she is the best person for this important job at this time. The fact is, Nancy Pelosi is the single most effective member of Congress, period.”
Miller, the savvy outgoing chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, has a point.
There is something to the argument that Pelosi is, as Miller says, “one of the toughest people in politics today.” And a case can certainly be made, again as Miller says, that “she has been attacked and vilified by the right wing because of her effectiveness. But we did not lose seats in this last election because the Republicans attacked her in their negative TV ads. We lost seats primarily because of the 9.6 percent unemployment rate and continued record foreclosures caused by the worst recession since the Great Depression. The Democratic Caucus has already done a great deal to improve the economy and is committed to bringing down unemployment and helping homeowners. Having Nancy Pelosi as our minority leader will help us succeed.”
Miller’s framing does have some appeal, as does the argument made by MoveOn.org that “Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the strongest, most progressive leaders in Washington. Her determination brought health care reform back to life last winter, when the Senate and the White House were ready to scale back. She fought harder than anyone for bigger, better job creation bills. And right now, she is the strongest voice in leadership for ending Bush’s millionaire tax bailout. But after Tuesday’s elections, some corporate Democrats are taking the wrong lesson -- saying that Democrats should be less progressive and more like the Republicans. And they’re pushing Speaker Pelosi to step down. This would be a terrible loss for progressives, and for the country.”
But the case for Pelosi cannot be made by others.
She has to make it.
And it has to involve more than just bumper slogans and talking points.
Pelosi is a veteran political player with deep roots in the Democratic Party establishment and generally well-regarded political instincts. She has long-term relationships with key caucus members and has worked with them in times of political strength and weakness. The parts certainly add up to a minority leader.
But Pelosi needs to put them together. She needs to use the bully pulpit that is hers for the remainder of her speakership to frame the Democratic agenda that President Obama is either too overwhelmed or too compromised to advance. That does not mean that she has to attack or diminish Obama, but she does need to distinguish herself and the House Democratic Caucus from the White House. There has to be some sense of why it matters to maintain the mission of the caucus as Democrats move from majority to minority status. Above all, she must establish that House Democrats are united around a set of principles for which they are willing to fight -- aggressively and effectively.
Pelosi can do this. She has the skills and, her record suggests, she has the proper political perspective. Remember that Pelosi rose to a leadership position in the caucus on the basis of two positions she had taken: opposition to Bill Clinton’s extension of permanent most-favored nation trading status to China, which won her the loyalty of Democrats from the Great Lakes states and the upper Midwest, and opposition to George Bush’s demand for authorization to launch a war-of-whim with Iraq, which earned her the support of anti-war members of a caucus that split over the issue in 2002.
Those were bold stances, which put Pelosi at odds not just with Republicans but with wrongheaded Democrats -- even wrongheaded Democrats in the White House. And the distinctions were on issues that mattered: fundamental economic and foreign policy concerns that extend beyond petty partisanship or political positioning. That’s what leadership is about, and if Pelosi plans to be the Democratic leader in the house, she should display more if it.
John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org