Get Rid Of Pelosi
Dan Gerstein, 07.22.09, 12:01 AM ET
At the beginning of the year, I predicted to a few Democratic friends that the most fateful decision of Barack Obama’s presidency could be installing Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. It’s not that I had a problem with Emanuel–I thought he was a good fit for many of Obama’s needs. But taking the young canny deal maker out of the House leadership meant Obama was giving up any chance of taking out the old guard, hyper-partisan Nancy Pelosi–who seemed exactly the wrong leader to amplify Obama’s new politics and move his healing change agenda on the Hill–as House speaker.
Six months later, the damaging consequences of this fateful choice are undeniable–and I believe irredeemable. On Pelosi’s watch, Congress screwed up the president’s stimulus plan, botched the oversight of the bailouts, rammed through a jerry-rigged, special interest-driven climate-change bill and is now sabotaging the president’s top policy priority by producing health care bills that won’t reduce health care costs. The level of partisan hostility in the House is arguably worse than any time in the last 20 years. And perhaps worst of all for Democrats, the party is splintering on multiple fronts, to the point that an arm of the DNC is actually running ads against Democratic senators.
Herein lies the biggest reason for the worrisome erosion of Obama’s political standing in recent weeks. The president has placed his faith in, and mostly subcontracted his policymaking to, an institution and a leader that are suffering from a profound confidence deficit. Washington is buzzing about a new Politico poll out Tuesday that shows Obama’s trust numbers slipping significantly over the last three months–from 66% to 54%. But the most troubling finding in that poll for Democrats is about Pelosi: only 24% of Americans say they trust the speaker. That’s 11 points lower than for Sarah Palin, who most Democrats contemptuously dismiss as a national joke.
I don’t know how the party can look at those numbers, or, more broadly, at Pelosi’s performance over the last six months, and not ask whether the most critical and immediate change we should be seeking in Washington now concerns the speaker’s chair. Indeed, is there any reason to believe that Pelosi, who is as scarred as any one in Congress by the partisan warfare of the Clinton-Bush era, can lead any differently for the rest of Obama’s term? That she can build the center-out coalitions Obama will need on the Hill to not just remake one-sixth of our economy (i.e., our health care system) but also to reform our bankrupting entitlement programs?
I understand that Democrats are highly reluctant to criticize (and thus alienate) their leaders. That’s especially true of Pelosi, who has given a lot to the party, stands out as a historic figure and more important, is known for raining down pain on dissidents. (Just ask Jane Harman and John Dingell, two powerful lawmakers who Pelosi bounced from their committee chairmanships, about the speaker’s sharp elbows). But much as she has been a loyal soldier and potent enforcer, Pelosi has been by any objective measure a failed manager for this president, who promised a new way of doing business. The House has been driving the legislative agenda in Congress, and Pelosi has shown none of her Senate counterpart Harry Reid’s bipartisan interests or instincts (modest and often enforced by Senate rules as they may be).
In fact, one could argue the speaker’s main accomplishment has been to galvanize and revitalize what was a moribund Republican opposition, which is now rapidly gaining strength relative to both Obama and the Democrats in Congress. Neither party fared well in the Politico trust poll, but Democrats dropped 10 points (42-52), while Republicans dropped four points (36-57). More telling, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found the approval rating for congressional Republicans has increased six points since April, to 36% (compared with 47% for Democrats), while picking up five points versus Obama on the deficit and seven on health care.
Now, Pelosi’s defenders will point to the stimulus bill as a major success, and in a narrow sense they are right. Enacting $787 billion in new spending that fast was a breathtaking feat. But where it mattered most, the bill she and her team crafted was a major failure. The partisan way it was passed set a terrible tone for a new administration that seemed intent on fostering more collaboration. The misleading way the plan was sold as a jobs bill, when so much of it was focused on paying off Democratic constituencies, has undercut Obama’s claim on reform-minded independent voters. And worst of all, all that money has had nothing close to the impact the American people were promised.
Most national Democrats will view this kind of talk as beyond traitorous–they would say it’s totally unrealistic. First, it’s just not the party’s style to do coups. Second, Pelosi is widely viewed as one of the most powerful modern-era speakers, and because she is so proficient at the care and feeding of her caucus, it’s highly unlikely they would abandon her merely over a six-month rough patch. And third, there is no obvious successor with Emanuel gone. For all those reasons, and because Obama is himself disinclined to confrontation, no one can imagine the president making the kind of power play that Tom Delay and Dick Armey tried to pull off in ousting Newt Gingrich in 1997.
The irony in all this is that Pelosi is classic paper tiger and could easily be removed without causing an uprising within the party. Forget about her Cheney-like poll numbers. Just ask average Democrats outside the Beltway and the blogosphere about Pelosi, and it’s clear she has no dedicated constituency (the way Gingrich at least did as the engineer of a mini-revolution). Yes, some Washington women’s groups would grouse if the first female speaker were pushed out. But she does not command anywhere near the allegiance Hillary Clinton does, and there’s nothing to indicate dumping Pelosi would generate the kind of backlash that the slights Hillary suffered in 2008 did.
In the end, though, that really doesn’t count for much. Democratic politics are still driven in large part by what a small group of activists think–the folks who give lots of money to the party, join MoveOn.org and regularly read the liberal blogs. Those partisans are clearly inclined to cut Pelosi considerable slack because she is good on their issues and bad news for the GOP. Effectiveness is a secondary consideration–especially when it’s much easier to blame those obstructionist Republicans. And as long as that warped equilibrium remains steady, Pelosi’s job, as well as the rest of the party’s congressional leadership, will remain secure.
My bet now is that Obama will, out of necessity, seize control of the policy-generating process on big-ticket items, which is his only hope of mitigating Pelosi’s weaknesses. The marginalized speaker will ride out the next 18 months and pray the economy turns around soon enough, and substantially enough, to minimize the Democrats’ losses in the 2010 midterms. If the lost seats stay within the historical norms, Pelosi will hold on for at least another two years. If not, and the Democrats come close to losing their majority, then her job will be at serious risk–Obama might be emboldened to push Pelosi out. (The GOP’s dismal midterm results in 1998 is ultimately what cost Gingrich his gavel.)
After the 2008 rout, it’s hard to imagine another changeover in the very next election. But then again, who would have predicted that Bill Clinton’s party would pick up seats after he had a sexual relationship with an intern and lied to the country about it for several months? Here is what we do know. Overreaching can be a very dangerous thing in our politics–especially when the head of your party got elected running against it. And sometimes the only solution to overreaching is, well, overthrowing.
Dan Gerstein, a political communications consultant and commentator based in New York, is the founder and president of Gotham Ghostwriters. He formerly served as communications director to Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and as a senior adviser on his vice presidential and presidential campaigns. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.