Sunday, November 14, 2010

For Democrats, unity and continuity in the House

I'm not a big fan of Steny Hoyer, quasi-leader of the Blue Dogs, and I'd prefer to see someone else back up Nancy Pelosi as minority whip, but Pelosi's move to keep Hoyer in the #2 spot and make James Clyburn, his chief rival for minority whip, "assistant leader" is simply brilliant. It ensures peace, albeit tenuous, and continuity. And while there's something to be said for fresh blood after a big electoral loss, Pelosi did a fine job as Speaker, is poised to be a similarly fine minority leader, a position she's held before, and, in my view, deserves to remain atop the leadership. And she wasn't going to remain there unless she made sure that there was no civil war over the minority whip spot:

Supporters said her remaining obstacle to staying in power was achieving consensus on her leadership team because rank-and-file Democrats did not want to face a choice between Hoyer and Clyburn. As the minority party, Democrats will lose the speaker's slot and end up with one less seat at the leadership table. Hoyer and Clyburn are liberals, but Hoyer has strong ties to the several dozen moderate Democrats in Congress. Clyburn has equally deep ties to the liberal wing as the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus in an elected leadership slot.

Rather than allowing the two men to continue a divisive battle -- which Hoyer appeared to be winning, based on public letters of support -- Pelosi created a new position for Clyburn, with undefined responsibilities. Its title is similar to a different, non-elected post known as "assistant to the speaker" or "assistant to the minority leader." It's unclear how the new position will be funded or where its offices will be.

But unity was the goal and, if rank-and-file Democrats agree on Wednesday, unity will be achieved.

Why is continuity important? Because the Democrats need to move forward in large part by defending their impressive record (health-care reform, Wall Street reform, the stimulus, the bailouts, etc.), not by making a show of throwing out those who helped guide the party to those successes. What, after all, would fresh new leadership signify? That the party was going in a different direction, that it was abandoning what it had done, all that it had accomplished, and that the midterms really were a rejection of the Democrats and their agenda. Changing the leadership, including forcing Pelosi out, would have been an admission of failure and an act of cowardice, an expression of fear and weakness, essentially a self-vote of non-confidence.

Because, as I and many others keep saying, the result of the midterms, particularly in the House, was not an expression of popular support for the Republicans and their agenda (which is extremist and obstructionist). It was, rather, a reflection of deep public discontent rooted in the still lousy economy, with anger and frustration directed at incumbents, at the party in power. Certainly, the Democrats failed to make a convincing case for themselves, and, given the swing, failed to hang on to seats in heavily conservative districts that they won in '06 and '08, but that's hardly Pelosi's fault, or hardly hers alone. And while the Democrats, both in the House and elsewhere, do have some bitter lessons to learn, there is no need to overreact and certainly no need for a purge.

Republicans will likely remain united on Capitol Hill, but there are already signs of fracturing as the party gets ever more extreme and as the Tea Party acquires ever more power within the GOP. (It's one thing to be thoroughly obstructionist, as establishment types like Mitch McConnell want, and to end up with gridlock, quite another to turn the House into a hyper-investigative inquisition. And, of course, there will no doubt be a good deal of internal conflict as the 2012 primary season draws closer and the likely candidates jockey for position.

All the more reason for Democrats to be as united as possible and to defend what they've done and what they stand for with conviction and purpose. There is certainly diversity in the Democratic House leadership, and it's not clear how they'll all get along, and there are quite a few Democrats who think Pelosi should have stepped down, but there is good reason to believe that, with Pelosi at the helm and her team settled in place, the party will be effective in opposition, working constructively and productively with Obama and Senate Democrats to get things done for the American people.

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