Sunday, November 7, 2010

How Dare Nancy Pelosi Run for Minority Leader?

Nancy Pelosi has surprised political observers by announcing her intention to run for House minority leader for the next Congress despite the fact that Democrats lost between 62 and 65 seats with her as speaker. It makes logical sense that one who presided over such an electoral catastrophe should resign, right?

I’m not so sure she’s actually responsible. Democrats lost on Tuesday because of the poor state of the economy and a public perception that Democrats pursued deficit spending policies that did nothing to improve the lives of regular Americans. Democrats were perceived to be distracted tackling issues like healthcare when they should have been focusing on jobs.

But this perception would likely be there no matter who was speaker of the house. President Obama would have pursued his signature of healthcare no matter what as well as the stimulus bill. In fact, Obama’s persistence in sticking with healthcare even when it proved unpopular is probably responsible for its ultimate passage. Since President Obama played such a large role in pushing for the agenda, voters saw him and not Pelosi as the face of the agenda. Indeed, exit polls bear this out. In house races nationwide, 61% of voters said their votes were intended to express either support or opposition to President Obama.

Moreover, if Pelosi had not become speaker, someone of her ideological bent likely would have. After a progressive wave came in 2008, it is hard to see Democrats accepting a blue dog or a moderate in such a powerful role as speaker. Such a move would have cost Democrats needed support from their liberal base at a time when those liberals seemed to be ascendant. Any speaker from the progressive wing of the party working with President Obama would have come up with a similar agenda to that which was ultimately produced.

So we cannot assign responsibility for midterm losses to Pelosi. There is of course an argument to be made that as a San Francisco liberal with a polarizing public image, she was a bad face for the party who could only cost the party seats. But that assumes that the average voter was really seething with rage against Nancy Pelosi when he or she went into vote on Tuesday, an analysis which the aforementioned exit polls do not support.

Perhaps Pelosi has lost the confidence of the Democratic caucus because of the losses, and the party would function better with a new leader with whom it had greater confidence. Although this would be merely perceptual, it would have real consequences. Wavering Democrats might be more likely to toe the party line for a leader they thought would advantage them electorally. This might ultimately be the best argument for not making Pelosi minority leader.

But those looking to blame Pelosi for her party’s defeat need to look elsewhere.

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