The Pelosi conundrum

Weeks before Election Day, strategists in both parties knew the GOP would win back control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 2. Too many seats were gone, and the momentum was headed in one direction. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) knew it too, even as she continued to declare that Democrats would keep their majority. Rank-and-file Democrats had been led to believe that Pelosi would step down from leadership in the event of huge losses for her party, just as former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had done when Democrats won back the House in 2006. After all, Pelosi had been the target of $65 million in ads against Democrats and had become for the right what Dick Cheney had became to the left several years ago — the poster child for partisan liberal Democrats profoundly out of touch with most of America. Democrats lost throughout the South and Midwest, in districts Pelosi hasn't been able come near for the last three cycles.
 
But doomsday came and went, and less than three days later, Pelosi made the inexplicable announcement that she would run again to lead her party. Lead it where, is now the question many Democrats are asking. Those familiar with her thinking say Pelosi remains convinced that the election was about 9.6 percent unemployment, and her public statements since the election bear that out. She concedes nothing about the agenda, and what she characterized in her USA Today op-ed this week as "the most productive Congress in a half-century." Pelosi sees President Obama keeping his job, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) keeping his job, the rest of the Senate Democratic leadership keeping theirs, and she has decided she won't be the one to pay the price for the party's failures.
 
Reports out yesterday indicate that movement against Pelosi's bid for minority leader is gaining steam among Democrats of all stripes. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) wrote their colleagues urging that leadership elections be postponed from next week during the lame-duck session until after Thanksgiving so that the caucus can digest the disastrous exit-polling from the election and learn from their defeat. It appears there will be no delay, but should the number of Democrats opposing Pelosi continue to rise, her election as minority leader is now uncertain.
 
In the wake of Pelosi's bid, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have been left to duke it out for the second spot, minority whip. Hoyer leads in support and endorsements, with most chairmen, Blue Dogs, New Democrats and many liberals backing him. Clyburn is hanging on, claiming that though he is the underdog, he doesn't want to accept an arrangement that would have him slide down to caucus chairman. The Congressional Black Caucus is backing Clyburn, and many Democrats share the concern of CBC members who don't want Clyburn pushed out of the leadership. Alienating African-American voters is the last thing President Obama needs as he readies his reelection campaign, but the White House — already unpopular with House Democrats — has stayed out of the leadership fracas.
 
Pelosi is to be thanked for the unfortunate Hoyer vs. Clyburn race, as she pointedly refused to back Hoyer for the No. 2 slot when she made her surprise announcement last week. The history of their rivalry — and the fact that Hoyer beat the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) by a two-to-one margin in the personal and reckless race for majority leader Pelosi urged him to run in 2006 — cannot be discounted in her latest decision. Hoyer has never taken her on in the years that followed, but instead remained a loyal and dogged deputy, quietly working on behalf of Democrats and earning the broad support he now enjoys. Even though members want him to, Hoyer is still refusing to challenge Pelosi. Still without a challenger, Pelosi is hoping to pull it off, and she is counting on Hoyer not changing his mind.
 
Pelosi's lieutenants are reportedly making most of the calls to shore up her support, reminding Democrats not only of how much money Pelosi has raised, but how she can be credited with leading the party out of the wilderness, not only winning back the majority in 2006 but adding more seats in 2008.
 
There are now more than 30 Democrats who have said publicly and privately they will not vote against her during the official vote for Speaker on the House floor in January. Though House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) would win that vote anyway, the protest votes by Democrats will be an unprecedented embarrassment. Any moderate or conservative Democrats who survived reelection battles despite the drag of Pelosi on their campaigns will be voting against her and cutting deals with Republicans in no time. They don't have any choice. 
 
There are consequences to Pelosi staying on — donors are reportedly threatening to back away from giving, quality candidates will refuse to run because she is leader, defeated Democrats won't consider rematches in 2012 that they would otherwise. So is Nancy Pelosi doing this for the party?
 

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