Power Centers

Why Would Nancy Pelosi Want to Lead a Party That Wanted Her As Leader?

Groucho Marx famously refused to be part of any club that would have the likes of him as a member. One has to wonder why Speaker Nancy Pelosi would want any part of a party that wanted to follow someone who had just led them to their worst election losses in more than 70 years.

Honestly, Nancy, it's not personal. It's just business. When something this big goes this badly, someone has to take the fall. Even if you don't hold the captain of the Titanic personally responsible for the loss of the ship and all those drowned souls, you still wouldn't want to put that captain back at the helm of your next ocean crossing. Would you?

No one had to make that decision in 1912 because the captain of the Titanic went down with the ship. Speaker Nancy Pelosi might have made it easy on her colleagues by doing the same this week. But she won her own re-election in San Francisco with 80 percent of the vote. So, retire? No. Step down? She announced Friday she wanted to continue as her party leader in the minority.

And we do mean minority. This week's results pushed the Democrats below 200 seats in the House for the first time since 1996 (and only the third time since World War II).

For many, Pelosi's persistence is extreme vanity mixed with careerism gone mad. She seems too proud, too sure of her vision to leave the stage. It all smacks of the haughty sort of hubris for which conservatives love to pillory wealthy liberals — like Pelosi.

The other way to look at this decision, and surely the speaker's own view, is this: She wants to be the leader because she thinks she can do the job better than anyone else in the House.

The job now consists of doing battle with John Boehner, the speaker-in-waiting. Pelosi has been jousting with Boehner for years and she thinks she can make life as difficult for him as he has made it for her.

Sure, she knows she'll be giving the Republicans a target they love to shoot at for another two years. She knows she stands for everything the conservative wave of 2010 was protesting: big government, stimulus spending, cap-and-trade legislation, the health care law. She knows how many of her own Democrats tried to save themselves this fall by promising never to vote for her for speaker again.

But she also knows that the real focus of Republican fire in the next two years will be the Democrats who are still in charge of their respective institutions: President Obama and the Senate majority leader (apparently the all-too-vulnerable Harry Reid of Nevada again).

And even more important, Pelosi knows that no one in the House is going to mount an effective challenge to her continuing as their leader. This is the part that is most difficult for most Americans to understand. Why would the Democrats not demand a new leader, the way the owners of baseball teams demand a new manager after a losing season?

The answer is that congressional leaders almost never face "confidence votes." They stand for election at the beginning of a Congress, but would-be successors often find it hard to gather enough commitments to make it worth the risk.

In this instance, Pelosi knows her No. 2, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, has said he will not challenge her. And indeed, Hoyer's standing is weaker now because the party's losses were worst among the Blue Dogs and other moderate-to-conservative members who were his natural constituency.

The "McCain Democrats," whose districts elected a Democrat to the House in 2008 while preferring the Republican nominee for president, were reduced from more than 40 to fewer than 10. One of those who survived, Heath Shuler of North Carolina, said he would oppose Pelosi so that his wing of the party would have a candidate. But no one, including Shuler, expects him to win.

Checking the threat level from the other direction, Pelosi and her team needed only a day or two of phoning around to eliminate the prospect of a challenge from the liberal rank and file.

The truth is, most of the Democrats returning in January believe, as Pelosi does, that their party got hammered  because the economy is limping and the big bills enacted in the 111th Congress were poorly explained and marketed to the electorate. Basically, they think their policy prescriptions will be proven right some day.

Moreover, they and their supporters can hope that the electorate of 2012 will look more like the electorate of 2008 than the one they saw this week. Back in 2008, the voters under 30 (heavily Democratic) actually outnumbered those over 65 (the most Republican age cohort). This week, the 65-plus crowd was 23 percent of the electorate according to exit polls, the under-30 voters were just 10 percent.

If younger voters and non-white voters return in bigger numbers and remain as disproportionately Democratic, they could bring the Pelosi party back in a hurry.

But Democrats must also do better among independents, who broke 3-2 their way in 2006 and 2008 but reversed that ratio this week. The GOP got 56 percent of their vote to just 38 percent for the Democrats, who will need at least an even break in the category to have a shot at returning to the majority.

In the days ahead, Pelosi will be reminding her detractors that she was the party's minority leader when they brought the independents to their side in 2006.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.