By Bob Cusack - 01/06/10 11:00 AM EST
For the first election since she became the House’s top Democrat, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will not be going toe to toe with George W. Bush in 2010. The Speaker, who declared herself in “campaign mode” last month, faces new challenges this election year.
Like professional athletes and protagonists in Hollywood blockbusters, politicians are judged against their adversaries. Bush was Pelosi’s Darth Vader, and she was his.
When Bush left the presidency, Pelosi said it “was like having a 10-ton anvil lifted from my shoulders.” Yet Bush’s sagging approval numbers in his second term were one of the main reasons why Pelosi became Speaker of the House.
A staple of effective campaigning is defining your enemy, for which Pelosi has shown a penchant.
In her book, “Know Your Power”, Pelosi wrote that the first agenda item in winning campaigns is, “You must take down the ratings of your opposition.”
She has also employed the strategy in moving stalled legislation ahead.
In pressing healthcare reform last summer, Pelosi labeled health insurance companies “villains.”
It is not clear who her chosen GOP villain will be in 2010.
Pelosi and other congressional Democrats fell short in defining Bush on their terms in 2004, but capitalized on his low approval ratings in 2006 and tied Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid to Bush in 2008.
While Bush’s name and record will be invoked on the 2010 campaign trail, Pelosi must seek to define a Republican Party that is still seeking to redefine itself after two electoral drubbings in a row.
But this year’s ballot-box battle will be a referendum on Democrats, not on Bush.
Ken Spain, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said, “With no Republican president to kick around anymore, the light is now being shined on Nancy Pelosi, and so far the public doesn’t like what it sees.”
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said, “Despite historic and political environment advantages, the NRCC has yet to win an election this cycle … Unlike House Republicans, Americans don’t want to go back to the failed economic policies of George W. Bush that got our economy in this mess in the first place.”
Independent political analysts believe that Pelosi’s majority in the House will be smaller in 2011, with most anticipating double-digit seat losses. Some Republicans believe they have a decent chance of winning back the House.
Pelosi recently acknowledged the challenges of this year’s election for Democrats, but also said she anticipates retaining “a strong majority.”
Part of her “campaign mode” is occasionally to favor the needs of her House Democrats over the Democratic-led Senate and even the White House. She vowed, for example, not to schedule votes on controversial legislation until it moves through the Senate first.
In 2008, Pelosi touted the bills the House passed even though many of them died in the upper chamber. That will happen again this year, House aides say. The Speaker has advised her Democratic colleagues to hail their achievements back home and embrace President Barack Obama.
A House leadership aide said, “You can’t run away from the president.” Noting that the No. 1 barometer of midterm elections is the president’s approval ratings, the aide said that as long as Obama’s numbers are around 50 percent, Democrats would hold their own this November. But if they drop into the low 40s, it would be a challenging election year.
Pelosi put some distance between herself and Obama on the issue of war in Afghanistan. She recently put him on notice that unlike last year, he is on his own on funding for the war. She promised anti-war Democrats that the 2009 vote was the last time she would ask them to back a war supplemental measure.
With another expected to be proposed by Obama this year, Pelosi said, “The president is going to have to make his case.”
Obama’s continuation of the war, the reauthorization of expiring provisions of the Patriot Act and other issues have infuriated liberal activists, which prompts worry among congressional Democrats about turnout this fall.
“We need enthusiasm among the base,” the leadership aide said, adding that the Democratic base did not show up to vote in the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial race, in which Republican Bob McDonnell cruised to victory.
Democrats are unlikely to move left on bills they are moving through Congress in 2010, in part because most politically vulnerable Democrats come from conservative districts and states.
But Democratic strategists say the liberal base can be energized by assertions that Republicans want to revive the “failed policies of Bush” and by focusing on Palin, Limbaugh and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Others, including a House Democratic insider, point to polling showing that Democrats and independents respond to reminders about the record of the Bush administration. Most Americans still blame Bush for the ailing economy, the source said.
Dana Perino, who served as White House press secretary in the Bush administration, doesn’t think that strategy will work and is optimistic about the direction of the GOP.
“It’s very interesting to see the minority in Congress coalescing now like they did in 1994 and 2006,” Perino said. She believes politically vulnerable Democrats will adopt a much more positive tone than inside-the-Beltway Democrats.
Pelosi, by far the best fundraiser among House Democrats, will have more time to raise money this year. And she is expected to play a key role in making sure the base shows up in 2010.
A couple years into her Speakership, Pelosi said, “I know the House down to the last blade of grass roots in every district.”
Jared Allen contributed to this report.