In U.S. elections where voters expressed disapproval with Washington, the decision of the House speaker to remain as the Democratic leader of the minority, following Senate Majority Leader Reid’s re-election in Nevada, means that the face of the congressional party will continue to be yesterday. After Pelosi’s surprise announcement Nov. 5, Republicans were jubilant. Leading Democratic strategists were despondent.
Before her announcement, several House Democrats who barely survived the Nov. 2 elections said it would be a mistake for Pelosi to stay on as leader.
“A change in leadership,” Democratic Representative Joe Donnelly of Indiana said, is necessary “to reflect the desires of the millions of people who cast votes in this recent election.” Only with new leadership, said Representative Larry Kissell of North Carolina, can House Democrats “become a national party again.”
Pelosi, 70, will prevail in a decidedly liberal caucus where many of her supporters won easily in Democratic districts. The heaviest losses, said Representative Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat who won his re-election contest 51 percent to 49 percent, were among “the moderates and the conservatives who as a group would have voted against her.”
Toxic in Swing Areas
Kissell won with 53 percent of the vote and Donnelly won a 48 percent to 47 percent squeaker. It’s in those swing areas and the dozens of districts the Democrats lost -- and that they need to recapture to be a majority again -- that the news she plans to come back as minority leader is toxic.
The California Democrat’s defenders say it would display weakness to make the most effective speaker in modern times a scapegoat. The elections, they say, were less about her than public relations, messaging problems and, most of all, a 9.6 percent unemployment rate.
What that seems to ignore are the millions of voters in places like South Bend, Indiana, or Charlotte, North Carolina, who supported President Barack Obama, are disappointed and anxious today and hope for constructive change. The congressional Democrats’ response: It’s business as usual.
The message is “we’re going to keep doing exactly what we were doing” before the party “got crushed,” Altmire said.
On the Senate side, Reid displayed his toughness and resilience in winning re-election in a state with the highest jobless and home-foreclosure rates and the most bankruptcies in the country. He won, however, because his Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, held views out of any mainstream.
Even with that, the four-term senator seemed spent, especially in a final debate before the election where he almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That’s the persona that returns to lead the Senate.
The Pelosi move is more consequential, especially as the new Republican majority in the House will ensure much of the action over the next six months will focus on that chamber.
In four years as speaker, her achievements, colleagues and many scholars concur, are extraordinary. She produced victory after victory on controversial measures with a combination of toughness and charm that no one could have replicated. She kept a disparate band unified and supportive of the White House.
Her legacy will be as the most formidable House leader since Sam Rayburn, who died almost a half century ago. Critics who blame her for the electoral shellacking, as the president called it, miss the point. The Democrats, starting with the president, had an ambitious agenda and massive problems. Her task as leader was to deliver the vote.
Unlike presidents, congressional leaders are judged not by the substance and success of their programs, but by their ability to forge majorities and protect their institutional prerogatives. What was the ideology or programmatic agenda of Thomas Brackett Reed or Joseph Cannon, two legendary speakers? Pelosi is in their league. Yet she may tarnish that legacy by staying on too long, like a prize fighter convinced there are still a few good fights left.
The speaker’s champions claim that the more progressive House Democratic Caucus wants her to stay on. Besides, they say, the next election, in 2012, will be about the presidential candidates not the House party leader. Voters want someone tough to defend health care and Social Security and other measures, they add. These politicians live in an echo chamber.
No Policy Mandate
Their reasoning is as flawed as that of Republicans who believe voters handed them a policy mandate last week. There is no way Republicans would have gained anything like 61 House seats -- the biggest pickup since 1938 -- without the bad economy.
Yet voters don’t hold congressional leaders blameless. Three-quarters of the electorate, in the Nov. 2 surveys, disapprove of the way Congress handled its job and almost half express strong disapproval.
Numbers like that cry out for a reset button. Obama, who has two more years in his term, needs a fresh infusion of people and policies. On Capitol Hill, Democrats need new faces to counter Republicans and work with the White House on those changes.
It’s not a bad assumption that Republicans will overreach; that Obama will be a beneficiary, and that the economy, while not robust, will be comparatively better in two years, and the president will be a favorite for re-election.
If that scenario holds, and Democrats attack the overzealous Republicans, the counter will be: Do you want to return to the Pelosi-dominated House Democrats? That may complicate the Democrats’ task of returning to the majority.
In some of those swing districts, there already are indications it will be hard to persuade candidates, including some who lost last week, to run again. Thus, the speaker, who cares passionately about the policies she helped enact and the party she leads, could set back both by staying on.
Had she bowed out, she wouldn’t have been driven from office; she would have turned over the reins after a great run. She would have been an important senior statesman, able to campaign and raise money for the candidates and causes she believes in, comfortably assured of her place in history.
Republicans are delighted she chose a different course.
To contact the writer of this column: Albert R. Hunt in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at email@example.com.