By George Crawford - 01/27/10 12:37 AM EST
Last year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) enjoyed a power that no Democrat had experienced in 15 years.
But even prior to the Massachusetts election, Pelosi found herself under fire from many quarters. From the liberal activist wing of the caucus, she was criticized for being too ready to compromise. The more moderate and conservative elements of the caucus claimed she was asking the House Democrats to carry too heavy a load in a difficult political climate.
After Massachusetts, a broad reassessment and retooling of the Democratic agenda has been taking place on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Let’s take a moment to see how the Democrats got into this spot. Why did the House leadership take the path it did? There were three major contributing factors.
• First, the leadership knows that the purpose of garnering a majority is to set — and act upon — an agenda. It is not to be passive and reactive.
• Second, the agenda was predetermined by the issues that dominated the election — stopping the slide into chaos of the financial and housing markets, righting the economy, fixing a healthcare system, dealing with a warming climate and laying the foundations for reorienting America’s energy policy.
These were issues Democrats pledged to tackle and on which they believed it was their mandate to govern in the 111th Congress.
• Third, after successful campaigns over the past several cycles, Democrats had come close to their potential high-water mark.
Keeping in mind historical trends, the potential of Democratic losses in the upcoming 2010 midterm elections was likely no matter the scope of the legislative agenda pursued by the House leadership.
Add these three factors together and you have the dynamic of an activist leadership, an agenda that appeared to have been validated by the results of a national election and the knowledge the Democratic majority, most likely, would not get larger, and would probably get smaller regardless of the House’s actions in the 111th Congress.
What threw the calculation into question was Massachusetts. It was as if a marathon were in progress and Democrats saw the standings at the 13-mile mark. Realizing that they were not leading the race, they have decided they need to reassess their plan of how to win the race.
Will there be time to modify the approach and reconnect with the voters who registered a vote of no confidence in Massachusetts?
First of all, in politics a day can be a lifetime, and the 10 months leading up to the election is an eternity. Certainly there is time. Most important, the leadership realizes that and has started making those changes.
How successful the leadership will be depends on the willingness of members to support the “revised” agenda for the balance of the election year.
The situation that the leadership will face is that individual members will now be even more attuned to the political climate in their districts and to their individual political fortunes — meaning they may be less likely to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt when it comes to casting a tough vote that may hurt them in November.
For the leadership, the dynamic is now twofold — moving an agenda and protecting members as they run for reelection.
For the lobbying and advocacy community, this changed dynamic opens the door for working with individual members to modify legislation that the leadership is intent on moving. The leadership will be much more sensitive to accommodating members as they face a much more difficult political dynamic than existed before Massachusetts.
Crawford is a senior government relations adviser in King & Spalding and a former chief of staff to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).