Monday, November 20, 2006

Pelosi is King of the Hill; Washington Media are Queens of the Stone Age

I know, I know, it’s already last week’s news—Steny Hoyer thumped Jack Murtha to take the Majority Leader spot even though Speaker Nancy Pelosi “threw her weight” behind Murtha. The official, oft-repeated takeaway from this is that Pelosi “lost” her first battle.

The reason I’m adding my two cents is because after reading a treasure trove of post-mortems on this, I still come up a tuppence short of folding money.

Yes, Pelosi would have preferred to have Murtha than Hoyer as her number two—Murtha has been a loyal supporter of the Speaker since she rose to the top of the Democratic org chart. Hoyer, on the other hand, challenged Pelosi for the whip’s job way back when, and has been running around, mouthing off, trying to cut the legs out from under Pelosi ever since.

Pelosi supported and possibly encouraged Murtha’s public about-face on the Iraq war a year ago, and the “San Francisco Liberal” understands that the hawkish Murtha’s very public stance gave many others in the party the cover needed to express opposition to Bush’s folly. And Pelosi understands that she is now Speaker—rather than Minority Leader—because Democrats finally found their anti-war voices.

Hoyer, on the other hand, has never been a staunch critic of the occupation. At best, it could be said that Hoyer has “evolved” from a Lieberman-esque supporter of the president’s Iraq policy to a Hillary Clinton-like triangulation—not so much an opinion, as a verbal Rorschach test.

And, while Murtha is notoriously the Democrat’s king of earmarks, fiscal misallocations, and cozy corporate quid-pro-quos, Steny Hoyer is not that far behind. When it comes to this specific part of the ethics debate, the Jack vs. Steny battle is a wash. But in the battle for caucus votes, Hoyer, a consummate Hill insider, was always going to come out the winner—we all knew that, and we should all know that Pelosi knew that, too.

That is why this idea that the Speaker somehow mismanaged the fight for Majority Leader represents a substandard level of media analysis that surprises even me. Does anybody out there at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, or NPR (or Maureen Dowd, for that matter) really think that after all of her years in the party leadership, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t know how to count votes? She knew Murtha didn’t have the numbers, and that is exactly why she went public with her support—not just “public” as in “here’s a Democrat’s eyes only internal memo” public, but “public” as in “talking to me and you” public.

Rather than indicating weakness, by openly supporting Murtha, the guy all but pre-ordained to lose this fight, Nancy Pelosi was making a big statement about how powerful she is. Pelosi was signaling to all of the Democrats how much she values loyalty, and what she will do for those Representatives that demonstrate it. The Speaker made it clear that there might be some tough votes ahead, but if the members stood by her, she would publicly stand by them. By sticking her neck out for Murtha, Pelosi was saying to all of the House Democrats, “I’ve got your back.”

By taking one on the chin in the center of the ring, Speaker Pelosi revealed that she was strong enough and confident enough to work the corners. She knew she could afford to lose an early round toward the cause of winning the bigger fight.

Pelosi also demonstrated a level of political intelligence quite a bit more evolved than the previous regime. Rather than resorting to the heavy-handed, behind-the-scenes browbeating and arm twisting common in the era of Hastert and DeLay, this first female Speaker is taking a stab at leading from out in front—at inspiring loyalty rather than inspiring fear.

Heady stuff? Complex “strategery?” Too in touch with its feminine side? Maybe, maybe not. But, while I expected this to be too evolved for the Neanderthals of the Republican Party and their designated mouthpieces, I didn’t expect the rest of the veteran Hill watchers to also be stuck in the Stone Age.

(cross-posted over at Daily Kos)


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