Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Pass the popcorn! The Democrats' ideological civil wars

The House Democrats face an identity crisis and they have to resolve it fast as they vote for who will be their leader in the minority. Republicans cheered when Nancy Pelosi threw her high-fashion heels into the ring. What could be better than having the new old face of the House of the Democrats be one of the most unpopular figures in the country? Add in that, with the disappointing return of Harry Reid to the Senate, the Senate Democrats will be led by another well-disliked figure whose own constituents don't like him; they just disliked him less than they feared Sharron Angle. The same pair who figured in so many GOP attack ads were going to be back in charge serving as unpopular foils for whomever the media attack on the Republican side.

House Democrats who lost their seats are not happy at seeing Nancy Pelosi once again the face of their party. But they don't have the vote anymore in selecting their leader. The Democratic caucus has now moved decidedly to the left. And many of those figures think that the problem is not that Nancy Pelosi crammed through unpopular policies that were too far to the left of where the American people are, but that she caved too much to the conservative qualms of the Blue Dog Democrats.
Even before the votes were cast, a counterargument was already taking hold — that it was the centrist Democrats, and not the liberals in Congress, who had imperiled the party’s majority.

“Democrats would be in better shape, and would accomplish more, with a smaller and more ideologically cohesive caucus,” Ari Berman, a writer for The Nation, argued in a New York Times Op-Ed in October. In an e-mail after the election, Jim Dean, who now runs the liberal group Democracy for America, founded by his brother Howard, told supporters that the progressive candidates who lost had been victimized by “corporate Democrats who refused to stand up and fight for real change.”

The theory here, embraced by a lot of the most prominent liberal bloggers and activists, is that centrist Democrats doomed the party when they blocked liberals in Congress from making good on President Obama’s promise of bold change. Specifically, they refused to adopt a more populist stance toward business and opposed greater stimulus spending and a government-run health care plan. As a result, the thinking goes, frustrated voters rejected the party for its timidity.
Eugene Robinson looks at the results and comes up with the conclusion that the Democrats lost their majority because Pelosi did her job so well.
Pelosi did what was right for the country, and what's right isn't always what's popular. Democrats may decide they need a less-polarizing figure as minority leader; if they do, well, that's politics. But I'd love to see her stay in the Democratic leadership - and I'm betting that eventually she'd find a way to take back the gavel that she pounds with such righteous authority.
It's a strange world when the RNC and Eugene Robinson are wishing for the same thing for the Democrats.

Two supposed more moderate Democrats, North Carolina's Heath Shuler and Utah's Jim Matheson, are asking Pelosi not to run in order to help the Democrats recruit candidates to win back the House in 2012. If the Democrats were going to be able to recover the lead, they're going to need to win back seats that they lost a week ago. Many of those seats are in more conservative or in swing districts where the voters don't have the same affection for Nancy Pelosi that so many inside the beltway do. Luke Russert put forth six arguments for why Pelosi should stay as leader. He admires her leadership in delivering the legislative successes of the stimulus and the health care reform and asserts that she would be a more effective leader in opposing whatever it is that the Republican majority in the House are going to do.
4. Many liberals and progressives do not want to compromise on their principles to appease Republicans. They see no problem in doing what the GOP did over the last two years that is being the “Party of No” out of principle. If this is the direction that liberals and progressives want to go, Pelosi is a much better leader than Hoyer. There is fear that Hoyer would be too accommodating to the GOP and to K Street influence.

5. Why should Pelosi be the only leader to fall on the sword after the disastrous results for Democrats on Tuesday? The president is not shaking up his team. Harry Reid will return to the Senate, a Senate that couldn’t pass many House bills that liberals and progressives feel could have helped their election prospects. And Pelosi has worked harder than any other Democrat leader and earned the right to leave on her own terms. In no way does she need to placate moderates by stepping down.

6. Finally, part of Pelosi wanting to stay is personal. She and many within in her caucus feel that she’s the best person at the table for House Democrats. While the media play up the need for her to leave -- as do some self-serving moderates -- eventually there is no better voice to lead an aggressive minority party that will put the GOP on the record as being against the middle class and being pro-big businesses and the wealthy.
Jonathan Capehart in the Washington Post cheers on the calls for Pelosi to stay and wishes that it were Reid whose job was in doubt.
If Reid couldn't get legislation passed when he had a 10-seat (then nine-seat) majority with the same ideologically diverse caucus that Pelosi was able to hold together, why should Democrats have any confidence he'll do any better with an even smaller majority?
Well, the reason why he couldn't get policies enacted that were as extremely leftist as people like Capehart and Robinson wished, the fault lies not in Harry Reid's less-than-scintillating personality, but in the structure of the Senate where the minority has great powers to block the majority. With a smaller majority and many members from red states who are up in 2012 and don't want to become the Blanche Lincoln walking dead of their class, he's going to have an even harder time getting Democratic policies through in the next two years. Those red-state Democratic senators aren't going to be thrilled to see those same ads run in 2012 pairing them with grainy photos of Pelosi and Reid.

Wishing for Chuck Schumer to lead the Democrats, as Capehart and others do, wouldn't make herding senators any easier. That's the way our system works. It was specifically designed to slow legislation down and block any majority from running roughshod over the minority. Republicans cursed the Senate rules back in the 1990s, Democrats cursed those same rules these past two years, and both groups will be cursing them over the next two.

The media always like to trump up a Republican civil war. It is the Democrats who will have trouble figuring out how to win back a majority in the House by moving further to the left.

And then there is the battle for the number two position in the House minority. Steny Hoyer, knocked out of the leadership position, has been knocked down like a Tetris piece to run for Democratic Whip against the present whip, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. The Congressional Black Caucus is rallying behind Clyburn. Other members, including Hispanic members are supporting Hoyer. The battle looks to be so close and liable to cause so much acrimony among the House Democrats that there is even a proposal to just create some new position so that both Hoyer and Clyburn to have titles.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, suggested that the party might create a House post in order for Hoyer and Clyburn to both remain in the leadership.

"We're going to look for a way to make sure that both these members can stay in the Democratic leadership," Van Hollen told CNN on Sunday.
That's a typical solution: don't choose, just give everyone a title.

In fact, the House GOP are creating a new position to give a member of the freshman class a role in the House leadership. That's a smart move to bring the incoming House freshmen into the leadership and forestall any rebellion from those members. They're about 80 or so members in that class and they'll be a powerful voice in the GOP House caucus. They don't want to have the same sorts of ideological battles dividing their caucus that are now splitting the Democrats. Of course, division is easier to forestall when you're in the majority than in the minority. Whether John Boehner's ability to keep his caucus united last term was due more to his own leadership than to Pelosi's overreach is debatable.

However the leadership battles among the Democrats shake out, those grief counselors that the Clerk's Office or Human Resources have provided in her office for suddenly unemployed Democratic House members and staffers might want to help their new patients get beyond the denial phase.