By Mike Lillis - 11/05/10 10:23 PM EDT
The California Democrat is a radioactive figure in many districts across the country, where Republicans parlayed her unpopularity to pick up seats in Tuesday's landslide elections. But she's also a master at energizing the Democratic base, and her liberal resolve, some Democrats say, will draw much sharper distinctions between the two parties than that of more conservative members who might otherwise assume the leadership spot.
Put another way: "She's in a better position to throw the bombs back at Republicans," a former House Democratic aide said tersely. "I mean, who's the better person to make John Boehner look crazy? It's Pelosi."
Before Friday's surprise announcement that Pelosi will run for minority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the current No. 2 House leader, was widely seen as heir apparent to head the party. The Maryland Democrat is known, in the words of one Democratic strategist, as "a dealmaker, a tactician" — someone who "makes the trains run on time."
But making deals with the newly empowered Republicans isn't high on the priority list of liberal Democrats, who suddenly find themselves with a much louder voice following Tuesday's decimation of the conservative-leaning Blue Dogs, who tended to gravitate toward Hoyer.
Pelosi — a master vote-counter — and her liberal allies spent the latter part of the week taking the temperature of the Democratic caucus on questions of leadership. Her decision to throw her name into the ring is indication enough that the responses were favorable.
It's also a signal that many Democrats consider Tuesday's midterm drubbing to be unrelated either to the controversial Speaker or the major legislative victories she won in recent years, including passage of healthcare and Wall Street reform.
Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), for instance, said Friday that it was the sagging economy — and not Pelosi — that torpedoed Democrats in 2010.
“I don’t think she was a drag on our party," Honda said in a phone interview. "She just said we should do the right thing for the country."
Asked about Blue Dogs who feel Pelosi was partly to blame, Honda replied: “How many Blue Dogs are left?”
Hoyer, for his part, announced Friday that he's weighing a run for minority whip, which would set up a tough contest with Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who wants to keep his current whip role in the next Congress. The decision is the result of "an outpouring of support from Democratic colleagues who have told me that I should remain in our party’s leadership," Hoyer said in a statement.
Hoyer's office said Friday that a final decision will come "relatively soon."
Several lawmakers are already on the record in support of Hoyer for whip, including Reps. Peter Welch (Vt.), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Robert Brady (Pa.).
In eying the whip position, Hoyer made good on earlier vows not to challenge Pelosi should she want to keep her spot atop the party.
Still, the perils of retaining Pelosi as face of the Democrats are glaring. Republicans this year were wildly successful at branding her a big-government, high-spending San Francisco liberal symbolic of the party on the whole. That strategy seemed to work on the campaign trail, leaving Republicans cheering Friday's announcement that she wants to remain.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result," said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Ken Spain.
A number of Blue Dogs on Friday were also quick to respond to Pelosi's run, aligning themselves squarely against her. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), for instance, said he won't support Pelosi "for House Democratic Leader or any other leadership position."
Another right-leaning Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), has threatened to challenge Pelosi if she didn't resign from her leadership role in the next Congress. Shuler's office did not return calls for comment Friday.
Yet the backlash from conservative Democrats has also had the effect of energizing liberals, with left-leaning blogs uniting behind the embattled Speaker, and a number of Democrats vowing to redouble their efforts to enact White House priorities.
"The lesson to be learned is that too much caution … gets us into trouble," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told MSNBC Thursday. "It's not a question of ideological purity as much as the party — my party, the Democrats — need to stand for things."
In the end, the Democrats are gambling to leave Pelosi at the head of the party next year — if that's indeed what happens. Still, some say it's a risk worth taking if the party hopes to rebound from Tuesday's drubbing.
"You can demonize her easier than Hoyer," said the former House aide. "But she's also in the better position to bring the Democrats back from the abyss."