The new speaker of the House of Representatives is tough and disciplined. But the Democrats still have a vision problemby / December 16, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
The US Democrats have just won their first election in a decade. They took back control of the House of Representatives without a single of their incumbents being defeated. They also look likely to win back control of the Senate, something few commentators had predicted prior to polling. And the party made breakthroughs in vital regions, not least in western states like Colorado and Arizona.
Over the coming weeks, few elements of this victory will make more headlines than the party’s choice of speaker. Nancy Pelosi, a liberal from San Francisco, now leaps past Hillary Clinton, Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright to become the most senior woman in American political history. She becomes also the first ever female speaker, putting her second in the line of succession to the president. More importantly, she is now the public face of the Democratic party in the run-up the 2008 presidential election. Who is Pelosi? How much credit does she deserve for her party’s success? And what does her ascent tell us about politics in the Bush era?
To answer these questions we must first put the victory in context. During the campaign, commentators speculated about a “Democratic wave,” a thumping victory similar to that won by Newt Gingrich for the Republicans in 1994. In the event this did happen, although only to a limited extent. This is, at least in part, because the political landscape of modern America makes Democratic landslide victories all but impossible; a decade-long pandemic of gerrymandering has sharply reduced the number of competitive congressional districts, and Republican superiority in organisation, fundraising and voter mobilisation make a Democratic victory more difficult still.
Yet this lop-sided electoral geography could not completely disguise Republican unpopularity. President Bush’s approval rarely inched above 40 per cent during the campaign. And the months leading up to the election saw an extraordinary reversal of fortunes on Iraq. Republicans began with a clear strategy to paint Democrats as weak, posing a choice between “stay the course” and “cut and run.” So grim did events become that Democrats felt emboldened to make “stay the course” an object of ridicule. Democrats ended the campaign with handy poll leads on Iraq and terrorism.
This reversal was part of a wider picture. The anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita reminded Americans that Iraq was not the only example of their government’s incompetence. The fuss over Mark Foley’s inappropriate sexual advances combined with the ongoing scandals over lobbyist Jack Abramoff to paint the Republicans as the corrupt embodiment of politics as usual. And while the economy grew at a fair clip, a mix of stagnant incomes and fast-rising prices meant Bush got little credit. Taken as a whole, voters seemed to decide that the Republicans had failed to govern competently. The rise of conservativism has been the central story of American politics for the last 25 years. The story of these elections is that this rise has been halted, at least for now.
At first glance Nancy Pelosi seems an odd figure to come to prominence against this background. She could hardly be more different from Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to turn back the conservative tide. Clinton, a southern centrist, was a natural communicator who enjoyed reaching across party lines. Pelosi is a partisan west-coast liberal, uneasy on television and unwilling to work with Republicans on principle. Indeed, the only similarity between the two is a mutual talent for raising vast quantities of money.
In other ways, however, Pelosi is a sign of the times. Clinton’s “New Democrat” movement is in retreat. The party’s liberal wing is ascendant, from loud-mouthed bloggers to angry antiwar protestors. And Pelosi represents a new breed of tough, partisan Democrat. A senior Democrat in the House once described her as “our Maggie Thatcher.” And if being disliked by your opponents is a mark of success, Pelosi scores big. Sean Hannity, a prominent Fox News commentator, went so far as to say that “there are things in life worth fighting and dying for and one of ’em is making sure Nancy Pelosi doesn’t become the speaker.” No wonder Democrats like her.
Although the Republican implosion was the main reason for the Democrat landslide, Pelosi deserves partial credit for the result. First, she instilled discipline. An old American bumper sticker joke is “I’m not a member of a political organisation. I’m a Democrat.” Pelosi has gone some way to squashing this stereotype. A study by Congressional Quarterly showed Democrats at their most united for 50 years. She has achieved this unity at least partly by frightening her party into line. Under her leadership, Democrats might not land many blows, but they make far fewer mistakes.
Second, she achieved the near impossible task of uniting her party on Iraq. The war presented Pelosi with a dilemma. She voted against it. But her lack of credibility on military matters meant that she could not argue for withdrawal without playing into Republican hands. She cleverly got around this by using Congressman John Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran, to make the case for withdrawal. She also managed to hammer out an uneasy truce among her colleagues. Democrats would go into the election arguing for “strategic redeployment.” The policy was close to meaningless. But when Iraq began to deteriorate over the summer, Democrats were just unified enough to take advantage.
Third, Pelosi successfully denied the Republicans victories. Most important was the 2005 battle over social security. Bush had made reform of America’s state pension system a signature issue. Pelosi spearheaded a smart fightback. She cannily mixed denials that the system was broken with a campaign to scare American OAPs about Bush’s plan. This ruthlessness was evident elsewhere, not least in her approach to corruption. When the FBI found $90,000 in the freezer of a prominent congressional Democrat, Pelosi quickly fired him. Such decisiveness surprised her colleagues and helped insulate her party from the charges of sleaze besetting the Republicans. It also meant that Democrats could take full advantage of the Foley scandal, a major tipping point in the campaign cycle.
Pelosi, then, can take some credit for the recent Democratic surge. But she is unlikely to provide the answer to the wider problems faced by her party. She will have to work hard to maintain the fragile unity over Iraq. She must also move quickly to muzzle her loonier colleagues, who, left to their own devices, would aim to raise taxes and impeach Bush. More than anything, if Democrats are to retake the White House in 2008, they need a plan that Pelosi is unlikely to provide. Her ability to corral Democrats behind bland, uninspiring policies made for efficient opposition. But it also contributes to the wider perception that the Democratic party is bereft of vision; an idea-free zone, unfit for anything other than a protest vote. Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat for the Bush era. But if Democrats are to win back America, they must quickly decide what they are for, not just who they are against.