The Pelosi Minority

The Speaker decides to reward herself for an epic defeat.

We’re beginning to wonder if any Democrats take responsibility for this week’s election rout. President Obama blamed it Wednesday on a failure to communicate rather than substance, and now Speaker Nancy Pelosi is making a bid to keep her job as House Democratic leader. Lose 61 seats? Whatever.

As an historical matter, Mrs. Pelosi’s announcement yesterday was almost as extraordinary as the election itself, which saw the largest turnover of House seats since 1938. Speakers almost always resign after an electoral repudiation—even Newt Gingrich, who stepped down after the GOP lost a handful of seats in 1998 while retaining the majority. The last Speaker who accepted a demotion to minority leader was Democrat Sam Rayburn in 1946, who reclaimed the gavel two years later on Harry Truman’s coattails.

Presumably Mrs. Pelosi is entertaining similar hopes, which suggests that Democrats really do believe their own post-election spin. How else to explain her bid as a matter of political logic?

Remaining in power deprives her party of one of its better opportunities to show the public that Tuesday’s message was received. Even if Democrats have no plans for a policy turn, sacrificing the unpopular Mrs. Pelosi might stand as a down payment on winning back the trust of the independent and suburban voters who fled Democrats this year. Something like a dozen House Democrats ran against her as much as they did against their GOP opponents.

Nonetheless, in her letter to the Democratic caucus, Mrs. Pelosi eulogized “the most productive Congress in a half century,” adding that “Our work is far from finished.” (Cue the string section.) “We have no intention of allowing our great achievements to be rolled back,” she continued, citing ObamaCare, financial reregulation and job noncreation programs like the stimulus, with unspecified threats to Social Security and Medicare thrown in at no extra charge.

In other words, Mrs. Pelosi thinks she should remain in power to preserve the agenda that forfeited the House. And she may well succeed, not least because of her fund-raising and proven log-rolling skills that were necessary to pass some of the worst legislation in generations.

The Democrats who lost in 2010 were in the swing seats that matter for controlling the House, and now that the caucus is leaner its political wavelength is more in sync with Mrs. Pelosi’s San Francisco liberalism than with the rare Blue Dog survivors like Heath Shuler of North Carolina or Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania. Lucky for them the vote for minority leader, as opposed to Speaker, is a secret ballot.

Mrs. Pelosi’s run also puts her chief lieutenants in a squeeze play. Current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland was expected to sidle into the top slot but said yesterday he’s weighing a run for whip, the No. 2 in the minority leadership. But current whip James Clyburn is a liberal Pelosi loyalist closer to the rump caucus mood than is a moderate like Mr. Hoyer. Mr. Clyburn also enjoys support from his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, most of whom come from safe or gerrymandered districts.

In Mr. Clyburn’s whip letter, he too writes that “we should have no regrets about the achievements of the last two years,” though he was willing to concede “general acknowledgement that we lost the communications battle on too many fronts.” Mr. Obama echoed that sentiment in an interview due to air Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” claiming that “over the course of two years we were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn’t just legislation. That it’s a matter of persuading people . . . and making an argument that people can understand.”

All of which explains how the Democrats made themselves a House minority in a modern record of a mere four years. In his Weekend Interview with the Journal last week, retiring Democrat Brian Baird of Washington state described what he called the “authoritarian, closed leadership” and “general groupthink” that has prevailed under Speaker Pelosi. Nothing confirms Mr. Baird’s judgment more than her decision to reward herself for an epic defeat by once again vouchsafing her leadership upon her Members.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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