Two years ago, when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was refusing to bow out quietly, her New York Senate colleague Chuck Schumer did a masterful job of gently coaxing the temperamental doyenne to the sidelines. Now, another high-profile Democrat-who-would-be-Queen needs a polite nudge – or perhaps a rude shove – from the national limelight. Sadly for everyone – except Republicans, that is – she’s still got her gavel, and is threatening to pummel anyone who comes near.
I’m talking about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Or rather ex-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, thanks to the drubbing the Democrats took in last week’s mid-terms owing to Pelosi’s stubborn and determined – but ultimately self-destructive – leadership of the party since Obama took office. As the darling of California’s hyper-liberal 8th congressional district, Pelosi had no problem retaining her own House seat, which was never in danger to begin with. But dozens of her fellow Democrats in “Ordinary America” – those ghastly places where commoners still “cling bitterly to their guns and religion” – went up in flames. And dozens more could suffer the same fate in 2012 if Pelosi wins her bid to become the House minority leader, which is all but assured, since the more conservative Blue Dog base of her leading rival, Steny Hoyer, the current minority leader, has just decimated.
Some pro-Pelosi sycophants think it’s unfair to blame her for the Democrats’ election losses. Are they kidding? It was she, more than anyone else, who pushed the party to over-reach the Obama presidential mandate with policies – to say nothing of a governing style – that was bound to alienate the independent white voters that Obama had so brilliantly captured for the party in 2008. She derided a more moderate incremental strategy on health care reform – dubbing it “Skinny Care” – and arrogantly demanded that the party line up behind the bloated, deficit-inducing version that everyone from former President Bill Clinton to White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel
warned her would backfire.
And when it did, with a full-scale revolt from voters in the summer of 2009, which soon morphed into the Tea Party movement, and other morbid symptoms of political decay, Pelosi’s reaction wasn’t just more of the same – it was full-steam ahead.
We know the rest of the story: as the debate dragged on, Obama ended up sacrificing what was left of his political capital – as well key Democratic agenda items like immigration reform and climate change – just to win over skeptical party moderates. And his absurd last-minute vote-purchasing, followed by the party’s dubious use of
the budget reconciliation process – reportedly, Pelosi’s idea – to achieve a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, ended all hopes of bipartisanship with the GOP.
And it still hasn’t made the health care bill – to say nothing of Pelosi – any more popular.
And it’s not just party moderates who are still licking their wounds. As part of the last-minute deal-making on Obamacare, Pelosi and the White House asked the Hispanic Caucus to set aside their objection to a provision that would deny illegal immigrants access to health benefits, even the right to purchase insurance with their own money. The quid pro quo: Obama would take up immigration reform next. It never happened, of course. Now, with GOP hard-liners in charge of immigration, there will be no sweeping legalization program, certainly not before 2012. No wonder many Latinos are taking a fresh look at the GOP.
No past Speaker of the House has ever clung so desperately to power as Pelosi is, given similar circumstances. Even Newt Gingrich, whose only real crime was to let the GOP’s huge House majority of 1994 shrink to a
mere 5 seats in 1998, had the good sense – and mature statesmanship – to step aside when it became clear that he was to blame, and if nothing else, that his continued tenure would prove divisive.
Some of Pelosi’s biggest cheerleaders aren’t party members, and most of her critics are too afraid to speak publicly, fearing retribution. It’s been left to members of the press, including Eugene Robinson and E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post and Mark Halperin at Time, to take up her cause. Robinson, for example, recently penned an op-ed column extolling the former speaker’s “grit” and “tenacity,” and marveling at her political acumen, and “warm personality.” It was the moral equaivalent of a Fox News profile of Sarah Palin.
Let’s be blunt: this is largely about money. Pelosi is a skilled fund-rasier, and much left-wing frothing about Citziens United and the right-wing corporate assaualt on camopaign financing, thanks to her efforts, Democrats
outspent Republicans by a substantial margin in this year’s mid-terms. No one likes to see a good Democratic rainmaker go, especially when Democrats are scrambling, and 23 Senators are up for re-election in 2012 – compared to just 10 for the GOP.
But Pelosi’s skill in this arena still assumes a level of continued polarization on the issues that may not serve Democrats so well – while giving conservatives their favorite liberal to blame and to demonize. Having Steny Hoyer in charge of the party, with African-American liberal James Clymer working at his side, won’t do much to weaken the Obama “agenda” or all the “victories” Pelosi claims she won as Speaker. But it could make it easier to defuse the growing health care repeal movement with something resembling a bipartisan give-and-take with the GOP, and to reposition the party to recapture disaffected independents before they abandon Democrats for good. It’s not political surrender or even retreat to argue in favor of compromise post November 2. It’s simple electoral arithmetic.
Pelosi isn’t really staying on to help her party. She foolishly predicted, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Democrats would retain control of the House, and how she’s got egg on her face, and is desperate for vindication, to say nothing of the perqs of power and celebrity she’s enjoyed these past two years. Conservatives, who appear genuinely stunned, and even humbled, by the magnitude of their recent victory, can scarcely conceal their glee that Democrats are unable to “man up” to stop Pelosi monster from further underming their party. For them, it’s like Thanksgiving and Xmas rolled into one. For Democrats, it could turn into a second, even scarier, Halloween.