Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 9, 2010

A VERY EFFECTIVE MINORITY LEADER.... Yesterday, the New York Times editorial board argued that outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D) skill-set doesn't match up well with the responsibilities of a House Minority Leader. The piece neglected to mention that Pelosi already served -- and thrived -- in the exact same position before becoming Speaker.

Today, the Washington Monthly is featuring a gem from our archives: an Amy Sullivan piece from May 2006 on the often-brilliant strategies employed by then-Minority Leader Pelosi.

In the winter of 2005, Bush unveiled his Social Security privatization plan, the domestic centerpiece of his second term. The president invested a tremendous amount of personal political capital in the effort, featuring it in his 2005 State of the Union address and holding carefully choreographed town meetings to simulate public support for the idea.

Most of the press corps expected the debate to be a painful defeat for Democrats. Not only were moderates predicted to jump ship and join with Republicans to support the president's plan, but Social Security -- one of the foundational blocks of the New Deal social compact -- would be irrevocably changed. But then a funny thing happened. Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush's "risky" proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.

As the privatization ship began sinking, Republicans challenged Democrats to develop their own plan, and when none was forthcoming, pundits whacked the minority party for being without ideas. But not putting forth a plan was the plan. It meant that once the bottom fell out on public support for Bush's effort -- which it did by early summer -- Democrats couldn't be pressured to work with Republicans to form a compromise proposal. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver that resulted in a defeat at least as decisive as the Republicans' successful effort to kill Clinton's health-care plan.

Also note the great anecdote in the piece about Pelosi helping orchestrate then- Rep. Jack Murtha's (D-Pa.) announcement calling for a troop withdrawal from Iraq. She took heat in the press, but behind the scenes, Pelosi executed a careful plan very well.

All of this is relevant now, of course, as Pelosi makes the transition, Rayburn-style, from Speaker back to Minority Leader. But the point that hasn't been gotten much play this week is that Pelosi really excelled in this job, and positioned her caucus for an unlikely majority in 2006.

I'll gladly concede that Pelosi is not the party's most effective talk-show guest or public speaker. There's something to be said, however, for an accomplished lawmaker with tremendous leadership skills, behind-the-scenes know-how, and a tactical understanding of how best to use the process.

Pelosi, in other words, was a Minority Leader who knew what she was doing. I know that's the kind of quality that seems unimportant lately, but here's hoping the Democratic caucus doesn't forget it.

Steve Benen 4:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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Comments

Agree. I don't why people are criticizing her for speaking skills. How many Congressional leaders have those skills? Boehner? O'Connell? Hastert? Really, even Tip O'Neill wasn't known for speaking, though he was good with a quip. But really since O'Neill, most Americans don't even know who they are. Also, as a Democrat, I'm grateful to Pelosi for staying in there because she is the most Democratic of any of the current leadership--president included.

Posted by: Sagacity on November 9, 2010 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

Well, if Debra Saunders is concern trolling against her, then it's a pretty safe bet that Nancy Pelosi is the right choice.

That, of course, on top of the fact that she's been incredibly effective both as Speaker and as Minority Leader.

Posted by: Tom Hilton on November 9, 2010 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

Ms. Pelosi is a very skilled and competent politician - the very reason she has been demonized by her political opposition!

A very common, yet unAmerican practice has taken its toll on Ms. Pelosi - namely, talking trash about others who are not around to defend themselves (just look at all the Republican mailers of this election cycle).

We do have a cowardly trait here in America, and the Republican party is leading the way to its despicable outcome - endless investigations, and no real governance for the next two years based on ill-perceived error-ridden trashtalk from the 2010 election cycle! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on November 9, 2010 at 4:59 PM | PERMALINK

"a gem from our archives"

very interesting, especially the last few paragraphs which point out how lamestream* media would not changes in Bush policies without in any way mentioning the Democratic attacks which caused them.

*a useful contributions of Palin to our vocabulary.

Posted by: Johnny Canuck on November 9, 2010 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

"Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition."

I know it's fashionable to bash Reid for being weak and spineless, but I think his contributions are greater than people give him credit for, as evidenced above.

Posted by: delNorte on November 9, 2010 at 5:27 PM | PERMALINK

It's a given that Pelosi is a master politician.

What the Dem's need is a garrulous, handsome, well-tanned drunk who can smooth talk the hosts of the Sunday Shows.

-oh, wait; Dean Martin is dead, and the other one already HAS a job in waiting. . .

Posted by: DAY on November 9, 2010 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

PLEASE keep Nancy. She's one of the few Democrats with cojones, and she did a GREAT, GREAT job in this position before.
PLEASE, please lose Harry, though. He's as useful as mammaries on a male bovine.
He too, though, was a good Minority Leader. He's just been uninspiring, terrible, aweful, horrible, tragic, etc., as a Majority Leader. Put in Durbin. Or my Senator, Chuckles the clown from NY. Sure, he's a Whoreporatist, but he's a great politician.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on November 9, 2010 at 5:37 PM | PERMALINK

Upon reading this, my first thought was, of course, that the Democrats would remove her from office, and then a parade of Democratic Congressman would go in front of the microphones and explain how they rejected divisive leadership and had heard the American people's demand for greater accommodation.

Really, my faith in the party has become paper-thin.

Posted by: bleh on November 9, 2010 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

Agree. I don't why people are criticizing her for speaking skills.

Well, to be fair (and I'm a big fan on Nancy's) she does tend to speak in "policy speak" and "congressional speak."

But it's nothing that a little media training and a smart writer couldn't change.

The think Nancy has going for her that the orange boner doesn't, is brains. She's whip smart.

Posted by: fourlegsgood on November 9, 2010 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

otoh, incoming majority leader (presumptive) cantor seems much more comfortable in front of a tv camera because he's so lacking in self awareness to know that he's a blithering idiot who knows diddly-squat about policy.

Posted by: mellowjohn on November 9, 2010 at 6:04 PM | PERMALINK

Her brilliant plan on Social Security privatization was not offering a plan? Hmmmm, doesn't that sound a wee bit like the "party of no" she and others have vilified?

Posted by: Don on November 9, 2010 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

...there's something to be said, however, for an accomplished lawmaker with tremendous leadership skills, behind-the-scenes know-how, and a tactical understanding of how best to use the process.

Why does the person with "behind the scenes know how" and "tactical understanding" also have to be the public face of House Democrats?

Mind you I think a reasonable case can be made that Pelosi is the best choice for minority leader. I think a reasonable case can be made either way. But my sense is that there won't be any contest at all, nor any serious discussion (save on editorial pages). I think for a party that just suffered massive losses, that's not a good sign.

Posted by: Jasper on November 9, 2010 at 6:32 PM | PERMALINK

who is the Democratic Party's best talk show guest?

and when to Democrats get invited to be on talk shows anyway?

Posted by: PeninsulaMatt on November 9, 2010 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

"Her brilliant plan on Social Security privatization was not offering a plan? Hmmmm, doesn't that sound a wee bit like the 'party of no' she and others have vilified?" Don @ 6:27 PM.

In a word: No.
Her brilliant plan was to allow the Republicans to go ahead with Social Security privatization ON THEIR OWN if they really wanted to do it. In case your mind has "misremembered" the occasion, the Republicans were in the majority IN BOTH HOUSES OF CONGRESS at that time. Had they wanted to, they could have passed some form of "privatization" through Congress and President Bush could have signed it. Of course then the Republicans would be SOLELY responsible for the destruction of Social Security and wouldn't be able to avoid the responsibility when the next Stock Market crash wiped out the retirement savings of millions.
Minority Leader (at that time) Pelosi's brilliance was in denying them that cover. There are often times for true "bipartisan" political deals; destroying the financial safety net of millions to satisfy an eighty-year-old grudge is not one of them.
I hope this post answered your questions? Did it? Hmmmmm?

Posted by: Doug on November 9, 2010 at 7:39 PM | PERMALINK

I had a hammer-and-tongs fight with Creigh Deeds (I'm a "fan" of his, on FB and he's one of the few pols who actually writes his own postings and, sometimes, replies to comments) last night about Nancy. He thinks that she's the wrong choice, because -- I ain't kiddin' -- according to WaPo, she has 60% negatives. So I told him that, with me, WaPo has 90% negatives, while unashamed and effective Dems like Nancy are both rare and precious. I also suggested he take a look at a) with whom (Repubs or Dems) she has those negatives and b) who lost the most races in the recent elections: Blue Dogs (with yellow bellies) or Progressives.

Sigh... I still think he'd have been a better Governor for VA than Little Bobby McD but that's not to say that his following into the footsteps of Mark (the Prince) Warner and Timid Timmy Kaine would have been all that great overall. Still less for the country as a whole (as opposed to the VA specifics), which is what the House Dems have to consider.

Posted by: exlibra on November 9, 2010 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

To add to Doug's (@1939) response. Social Security wasn't broke, there was no reason to eff around with it at all. It was not incumbent on Dems to provide a new, slightly less effed up plan and then try and defend it; they already had a plan they could support, in place.

It's different than when Dems come up with a solution to a real problem, and the party of no is just picking at it like a bunch of carrion crows, without ever suggesting a single constructive thing to offer instead.

Indeed, I wish that Dems would offer no "solutions" to the Bush's tax plan (cuts, with a scheduled sunset), either.

Posted by: exlibra on November 9, 2010 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

Strange that no one has mentioned that, this past week, Shrub said losing privatization of social security was his biggest failure.

Posted by: berttheclock on November 9, 2010 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Jasper: a reasonable case can be made for both sides of this. I don't think anyone (make that any Democrat) with concerns about Pelosi would be smart to deny the skills she possesses as a fundraiser and "cat herder" that make her formidable. I also think it's absurd for either side of this to deny that she also wields considerable personal political power, with both positive and negative aspects.

At this point, I think it's not worth rearguing this til the end of time; either she gets the votes in her caucus or she doesn't, and what the public thinks will, ultimately, not be the deciding factor. My own dismay has been kind of ameliorated by the fact that, as usual, Democrats did in front of the cameras what probably should have been hashed out behind closed doors. It's not going to help Pelosi, or another ultimate winner that all of this, including Pelosi's perceived negatives, were debated so openly in the media.

And still, I think the question lingers: Democrats will, if Pelosi wins and either Clyburn or Hoyer takes Whip, have followed a 60+ seat loss within their caucus with no real change in leadership, messaging, or policy plans. It's a way to start the conversation that leads up to the next election... but I'm not convinced it's the best one for future success. I'm not an angry Democrat... just one who's seen a lot of this movie already.

Posted by: weboy on November 9, 2010 at 9:00 PM | PERMALINK

"As the privatization ship began sinking, Republicans challenged Democrats to develop their own plan, and when none was forthcoming, pundits whacked the minority party for being without ideas. But not putting forth a plan was the plan. It meant that once the bottom fell out on public support for Bush's effort -- which it did by early summer -- Democrats couldn't be pressured to work with Republicans to form a compromise proposal. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver that resulted in a defeat at least as decisive as the Republicans' successful effort to kill Clinton's health-care plan."

So what was your complaint against John Boehner for enacting the same strategy from 2009-2010?

Monkey see, monkey do. Nothing succeeds like success.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on November 9, 2010 at 11:49 PM | PERMALINK

I'm supporting Speaker Pelosi for House Democratic leader because she has been an effective leader of an ideologically diverse caucus, she is a proud progressive, and because Democrats should base their decisions on what is right for the country and the party not on hoping to avoid Republican attacks that will come no matter what we do.

If you want to support Pelosi also and have a Democratic Congressperson, give them a call to urge them to support Pelosi.

http://www.winningprogressive.org/call-on-your-democratic-member-of-congress-to-support-pelosi

Posted by: Winning Progressive on November 10, 2010 at 12:47 AM | PERMALINK

Pelosi needs to go. I guess we have the same memory affliction that effects Republicans.

Pelosi: Bush Impeachment `Off the Table’
by Susan Ferrechio
Published: November 8, 2006

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi promised Wednesday that when her party takes over, the new majority will not attempt to remove President Bush from office, despite earlier pledges to the contrary from others in the caucus.

Posted by: sensistar on November 10, 2010 at 6:55 AM | PERMALINK

This is a gimme. Appoint Al Franken public spokesman for the Democratic party. Game, set, match.

Posted by: beejeez on November 10, 2010 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK
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