Nancy's First Mistake

As the new House majority caucus prepared to pick its leadership today, Democrats were trying to make the best of the inevitability of Nancy Pelosi as the party’s first speaker in a dozen years. They have put out the word that she was not serious in endorsing Rep. John Murtha for majority leader. How much effort she has exerted for her longtime ally is irrelevant, but she has actively solicited votes this week.

The damage to her was irrevocable when she wrote her colleagues last weekend urging them to pick Murtha over Rep. Steny Hoyer. Close associates of Hoyer say her letter stunned him, and he was not alone. While Pelosi had made clear she would vote for Murtha, the public endorsement was unexpected.

Although Pelosi’s apologists had stressed that this was not a public campaign but a pro forma endorsement, she began actively campaigning for Murtha Tuesday. Even before that, the letter itself was taken seriously within the Democratic Caucus, including by Hoyer and his close associates. A speaker’s written word cannot be taken lightly.

This is a no-win situation for Pelosi. If Murtha wins today, she will be accused of personal vindictiveness in derailing Hoyer, who is more popular in the caucus and better qualified for leadership. If Murtha loses, as is much more probable, she will be seen as bumbling her first attempt to lead the new Democratic majority. Pelosi could have avoided this dilemma by standing aside as Speaker-presumptive Newt Gingrich did when he voted for his ally Robert Walker as majority whip but did not ask members to oppose Tom DeLay.

Pelosi’s mistake confirms longstanding, privately held Democratic apprehension about her abilities. Their concerns do not reflect the Republican indictment of her as a reflexive San Francisco liberal. Some of her most trenchant congressional critics are on the left wing of the party. These colleagues worry that her decision-making may be distorted by personal considerations.

Hoyer is the most accomplished Democratic legislator in the House, widely respected on both sides of the aisle. He, not Pelosi, would be preparing to be speaker had he not lost to her in a 2001 contest for minority whip, thanks to nearly complete support from her huge California delegation. That put Pelosi ahead of Hoyer on the leadership escalator. While Hoyer would win a secret poll of the Democratic caucus as more qualified, Democrats cannot turn aside the first female speaker.

It was assumed that Hoyer be given the second position of leading a Democratic majority — until Jack Murtha announced his candidacy. Never before during his 32 low-profile years in the House could anyone have imagined Murtha seeking any leadership role. He has been a backroom distributor of federal pork who disdained public exposure, in the headlines only as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1980 Abscam scandal. Murtha became an unlikely hero of the Left last year when he called for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

With Pelosi and Hoyer working amicably the last two years, the speaker-to-be was expected to keep hands off the majority leader’s race. Since the Nov. 7 election, she had exhibited restraint, in public utterances and in quietly handling the ambitions of Rahm Emanuel.

Rep. Emanuel, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was architect of the 2006 victory. He coveted the third-ranking post of majority whip, but that put Emanuel on a collision course with the Congressional Black Caucus’s candidate, Rep. James Clyburn. A ruinous competition was averted when Pelosi brokered a deal whereby Emanuel agreed to replace Clyburn as House Democratic Caucus chairman.

But Pelosi’s personal pique was evident in opposing her rival diva from California, Rep. Jane Harman, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. In line to replace Harman was Rep. Alcee Hastings, who had been impeached as a federal judge on bribery charges.

For a party that effectively stressed a Republican climate of corruption in the recent campaign to consider placing Murtha and Hastings in its leadership astonishes a wide range of Democrats. They do not believe Murtha can defeat Hoyer, but the imminence of Hastings stuns them. Well-placed Democrats have told Pelosi she cannot permit this to happen. What they hesitate to contemplate is what lies ahead based on Pelosi’s performance before she has taken the oath.