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Passion, Patience, and Pelosi
November 12, 2002
By 
Patrick Ennis

Still stinging from their humiliating defeat in last week’s mid-term elections, which appeared to present a golden opportunity to at least beef up their majority in the Senate, if not take control of the House too, congressional Democrats are considering a regime change of their own. Dick Gephardt, a Missouri moderate who has been House Minority Leader for the last 8 years, announced that he will resign his leadership position. While aides say that the move will allow him to devote more time to planning a presidential bid in 2004, many of his fellow Democrats in the House see him as part of a party leadership that is to blame for the party’s poor showing and general loss of initiative. There are no plans as yet to replace Tom Daschle, now demoted to Minority Leader status, as leader to the Democrats in the Senate. He has plenty of vocal critics, even more than before the election. But nobody else seems to want the job.

But in the house, Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi stands almost unopposed to replace Gephardt. A San Francisco liberal representative and former chair of the California Democratic Party, Pelosi is a sharp contrast to her pragmatic predecessor. Like the late Senator Paul Wellstone, she is unashamed of the liberal label. She has been an impassioned champion of women’s rights, including abortion rights, human rights abroad, and gay rights. Fellow California Democratic representative Maxine Waters said of her “The words I use to describe Nancy are the words I want to use to describe the Democratic Party: ‘Progressive, strong, energetic’. That is the prospect Nancy offers our party.” But that’s not to say she will be too obstructionist to function in a leadership role of a minority party. Fellow Democratic California legislator Senator Barbara Boxer says of her longtime friend “I have to laugh when people pigeonhole her as a liberal. What she really is, is a unifier. She is going to find issues …. that everyone in the party can rally around. Her goal has always been consensus, not ideology.”

She certainly is able to excite the base, and if Boxer is right, it will be a refreshing and much needed change for a party known for its fractiousness. She initially had competition from Texas moderate Martin Frost, who said of her “I think that her politics are to the left, and I think that the party, to be successful, must speak to the broad center of the country.” Perhaps Frost, who has since withdrawn his name from consideration and endorsed Pelosi when it became clear that Pelosi had the votes to win, is forgetting that Democrats have been trying to walk the centrist line since 1995, when Bill Clinton, through his leadership of the DLC, dragged the party kicking and screaming to the political center, after seeing Republicans take control of both the House and the Senate. Granted, the newly centrist Democrats picked up congressional seats in 1998 and 2000 (though still not enough to regain majority status), but times have changed since. The peace and prosperity of the 1990’s is gone, and there is no longer a charismatic Democrat at the bully pulpit. Perhaps Frost also has failed to notice that as the Democrats move toward the right, the Republicans have hardly reciprocated by moving toward common ground. Not unless you can convince yourself to think of people like Trent Lott and Tom DeLay, who consider willingness to compromise a weakness, as moderates. If anything, they have moved further right. When Democrats reach across the aisle, Republicans put out a hand, but only after taking a step back, and then another, and another, still with hand outstretched. (And when Republicans reach across the aisle, be sure to check the palm for a joy buzzer.) If this trend continues, we will end up with an ambiguous “choice”; one between conservatism on the left and fascism on the right.

Pelosi, technically, does have competition for the leadership position from 32-year old, 3 term Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, but it’s futile. Pelosi’s selection is imminent. It will breathe some passion back into the base, the lack of which is one of the things that cost the Democrats congressional seats and a few governorships in last week’s election. The question is whether it will do so at the cost of moderates, as Frost and other centrists, and some Republicans, suggest. That’s why Pelosi’s leadership of the minority party in the House is a gamble. But then, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Passionless pragmatism has already been the strategy of the day, and it clearly isn’t working. The decision of more than half the Senate Democrats to support President Bush’s resolution authorizing war against Iraq didn’t stop them from losing their majority status, although it was considered politically necessary to prevent just that from happening, and is remembered by some as a disastrous policy of appeasement, playing Chamberlain to the president’s Hitler. Perhaps Daschle, Gephardt, and the rest of the party leadership should have remembered that the function of an opposition party is to oppose, not to appease.

So if Pelosi’s ascent to House Minority Leader signals a return by the Democratic Party to its more liberal roots, the passion will return to the party’s base. Will that result in even more congressional losses, as the moderate skeptics predict? Actually, at first, it might. The election day losses underline the need for a clear message, one that is easily distinguished from that of the competition. It can be very difficult to get that message out when you can’t control any of the legislative agenda. It can take time -- a lot more than 2 years. That’s why this enthusiasm may have to be maintained beyond the 2004 elections, and maybe even beyond 2006. If the Republicans win even more seats in 2004 and Bush solidly thumps his challenger -- which is quite possible, given that the GOP has always had and always will have more money to spend – there will be a powerful temptation to scrap the game plan and run back to safety of the center, forgetting in the panic that this route has already been tried. At the risk of being labeled a heretic just a plain idiot, I suggest such a quick reversal, should this scenario come to be, would be a mistake. Conservatives have spent two decades stigmatizing the very word “liberal”. It’s quite a tall order to reverse that in 2 years, or 4, even with a sour economy and a war without end, especially when in minority status.

Congratulations, Ms. Pelosi, on becoming the first female party leader, in either chamber, of either party. Democratic activists, give her your full support. I know you will. But have patience. It is a sound strategy for the party of the left to move to the left, but the right has conspired and will conspire to make that road as difficult as possible. Victory may take longer than you think. Be prepared for a long battle.

 
Patrick Ennis: Articulating the viewpoint of the secular, liberal, Midwestern working class because, frankly, somebody has to (and nobody else is).

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