On November 2, Democrats lost a net of 61+ seats in the House (a handful of races are still too close to call), costing them the majority in that chamber, and Senate Democrats lost six seats. Pundits called it a Category 5 storm, a seismic change. The President labeled it a “shellacking.” Embarrassed, Democrats returned to Washington to lick their wounds and to start planning a strategy to reclaim the majority.
They clearly didn’t get the message. Yesterday, Senate Dems reelected the same leaders and today the House is expected to follow suit. In fact, as I type this post the Democratic caucus is meeting to vote Nancy Pelosi in as minority leader. Nothing says change like electing the same people you just threw out. The Republican National Committee was so excited they changed the “Fire Pelosi” banner at their headquarters to “Hire Pelosi.” The more things change…
Can Democrats really ignore the loss of one in five of their seats? Certainly, Pelosi isn’t having an easy week. Yes, the shrunken Democratic caucus, now mostly her progressive base, will reelect her. But not over the objections of the remaining – and ousted – Blue Dogs and moderates. North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler is challenging her for leader, not to win – he says he doesn’t have the votes – but to make the point that she shouldn’t be reelected unopposed. The Blue Dogs are also trying to rein in Pelosi’s office. Pelosi consolidated an unprecedented amount of power into the Speaker’s office, helping her to ram through bills that her rank and file didn’t exactly love, like health care reform and global warming.
Those changes aren’t likely to pass and Pelosi will resume the office she held from 2002 to 2006. She is betting that the country is entering a politically unstable period like the one between 1940-1961 when Democrat Sam Rayburn and Republican Joe Martin traded the office of speaker five times. It is true that Rayburn was 65 in 1947 when he first lost the House to Martin (Pelosi is 70) and nearly 80 when he lost it for the last time just a few months before his death from pancreatic cancer. But those were different times. For one thing they were much more congenial.
Pelosi won the House in 2006 by essentially forming a united block against much of George W. Bush’s second term agenda. She presided over one of the most unified minorities in a generation. House Minority Leader John Boehner, whom after this afternoon shall most likely be referred to as speaker-elect, took a page out of Pelosi’s playbook: he united his conference in opposition to President Obama.
But, moving forward, do Americans really want the minority party united in opposition? For all that they elected bomb throwers, voters want bipartisanship – something Boehner was keen to do with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who is expected to reprise his role as whip in the minority. Hoyer is more moderate and he and Boehner work well together.
It will be interesting to see if Pelosi returns to her strategy of no. It has been proven twice in the last five years to work well. But, as Rayburn famously said, “A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”