One of the toughest jobs in politics is that of Minority Leader in Congress. You have to try to be responsible as a key part of your institution, to keep your party together in opposition to the majority, and to translate your actions into enough political leverage that you can gain seats and reclaim the majority in the next election--all at the same time.
I was thinking about these often mutually exclusive imperatives recently as I read a fine new biography of former Rep. John Rhodes (R-Ariz.) by Jay Smith, who served Rhodes for years as press secretary.
I knew Rhodes both during the time he was his party’s leader in the House and afterwards. He was a great human being and a model legislator. He was also a fierce partisan and a tough negotiator. He was deeply frustrated by his party’s inability to crack through the glass ceiling and make it to the majority. His political adversary and friend, Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), once turned to him from the dais and said: “You’ve had your eye on my chair for a long time. I just want you to know that’s all you’re going to have on it.” John laughed, but it hurt.
John’s frustration with the House and the arrogance of the majority was expressed in a book he wrote in the mid-1970s called The Futile System. Much that he wrote then could apply to today’s House, multiplied by 10.
Reading John Rhodes: Man of the House and re-reading The Futile System made me think of Rhodes’ successors. Former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) had a similar leadership style and even greater frustration as Minority Leader, pushed and prodded regularly within his own party by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), first as an outside agitator and then as Michel’s Whip, while also enduring second-class treatment, at least in terms of authority, by the Democratic majority.
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) culminated his career as Minority Leader, facing wave after wave of frustration in a new era. There was no longer any sense that the Minority Leader and Speaker would beat each other’s brains out during the day, yet have a drink together after the close of business and play golf together on the weekend. Gephardt and Gingrich went months at a time without speaking.
Now comes Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in an even more rancorous environment. Pelosi, an assertive leader determined to get her party back in the majority, has experienced years of frustration, facing a Republican Party that displayed awesome unity on issues ranging from appropriations to tax cuts to energy, operating with more closed and restrictive rules than at any period in our lifetimes and operating almost like a parliamentary majority. Pelosi has often been unable to muster the kind of cohesive opposition that Gingrich achieved in 1993-94.
She is determined to follow the Gingrich model, creating a genuine minority party that opposes, looks for ways to split the majority, highlights its failings and especially its scandals, condemns regularly its arrogance and its excesses of power, and finds ways to make the Republicans’ potentially vulnerable Members more vulnerable.
She has certainly been helped by the overreaching of the majority, its obtuseness on matters of ethics, its penchant for gratuitous humiliation of the minority--witness House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)--and the emergence of cracks in its remarkable discipline, stemming from a second presidential term and a looming sixth-year midterm election.
Given the nature of our times, Pelosi is the kind of tough-minded and aggressive leader that an embattled minority needs. But such a leader must also show some perspective if the party is to offer any hope of winning seats that might be contestable and that could add up to a majority. That means picking battles carefully and showing sensitivity to the party’s image with voters.
Some issues require a party whip and strict discipline--prescription drugs was one, and the budget is another. Democrats who abandoned the party on these issues were remarkably obtuse. But bankruptcy reform, which is not a key bottom-line party priority, and one on which many Democrats differed from the leader, was not in the same league. Ostracizing Democrats who voted for that bill was not a wise way to build the party’s base. And I say this even though I think the bankruptcy bill was deeply flawed.
Balance also means erasing or at least ameliorating the Democrats’ weakness with voters on national security and homeland security issues. Like it or not, the American public does not see Democrats as sufficiently tough in the era after Sept. 11, 2001. In the vast bulk of potential swing seats that Democrats need to flip, including those once occupied by Blue Dogs, these larger security issues matter a lot.
But there is a real risk that Pelosi’s own instincts on these issues will serve more to reinforce the image of weakness for Democrats than reduce it, and indeed may reinforce a confrontational, partisan approach on the sensitive questions of America’s role in the world at a time when more Americans want Congress to come together to confront larger threats.
There are House Democrats who are serving admirably to present a more balanced and credible public face on such questions. At the top of that list is Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, who has shown an ability to work well with the chairman, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), while also offering tough but constructive advice to the administration on intelligence reforms, homeland security and national security policy.
With the passage of the 9/11 Commission’s reforms, the old term limits on service on the Intelligence Committee are gone. But it appears that Pelosi is intent on replacing Harman as ranking member in the next Congress, probably with a liberal who will take a very different stand on these issues. This would follow the replacement, upon his departure from Congress, of moderate Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) by liberal Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) as ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, along with a near-complete turnover of the panel’s minority staff.
I don’t want to knock Thompson, a very capable Member. But if anything, the smart move for a Minority Leader now is to bulk up the party’s national security portfolio with Democrats who can reassure voters, especially those in heartland districts. A disciplined opposition can be, as Gingrich showed in 1993-94, a winning approach. But it can go too far. The Minority Leader needs to think through a strategy that can maintain party unity while also bringing in, rather than turning off, the voters they need to reach the majority. Otherwise, she may find herself in the same category as Rhodes, Michel and Gephardt: admired leaders who never led their party out of the minority wilderness.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.