Penalty for Excessive Celebration

Andrew E. Busch

November 1, 2002

Many Republican politicians and conservative commentators were ecstatic about the recent election of Nancy Pelosi to the position of House Minority Leader. Such celebration is premature.

Given the nature of Rep. Pelosi’s San Francisco district—a place where Al Gore and Ralph Nader received a combined 85 percent of the vote in 2000—and her voting record—one of the most liberal in the House—it is easy to understand why Republicans think they may benefit from Pelosi’s leadership of House Democrats. In many parts of America, the description “San Francisco Democrat” tells voters all they need or want to know. Her victory is itself a sign that House Democrats have chosen to respond to their November 5 defeat by lurching to the left. Indeed, Pelosi’s rise is not the end of Democratic infighting, but only the beginning. Senate Democrats may choose a different course, putting them at odds with their party in the other chamber, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a close Clinton friend, may find himself under attack as well by the revived liberal wing of the party. Defections by moderate and conservative House Democrats are even possible. One can imagine Pelosi becoming as unpopular as Newt Gingrich after 1995, and as commonly utilized as a symbol of extremism with which an entire congressional party might be tarred.

The analogy with Gingrich, however, raises an important point, seldom discussed by Republicans who see only the upside of Pelosi’s victory. Newt Gingrich might have been the most unpopular politician in America after Bill Clinton and the Democrats got through with him, but he also brought Republicans into a majority they have now maintained for five elections in a row. Furthermore, he did it by doing exactly what Nancy Pelosi promises to do: drawing distinctions and going for the opponent’s jugular, putting an end to tactics of “me-tooism” and going along with the other side for short-term gain, and recognizing that sometimes one must lose today in order to win tomorrow.

Indeed, conservatives should be more aware than anyone of the potential for gains built on a politics of conviction, and of the pitfalls of discounting that potential. Ronald Reagan was Pat Brown’s preferred opponent in the California gubernatorial race of 1966, as he was Jimmy Carter’s preferred foe in 1980. Brown and Carter thought Reagan’s campaigns of conservative principle would never strike a chord with the decisive “center” of the electorate. We all know how that ended. Democrats salivated at the prospect of facing Goldwater in 1964, as did Republicans when contemplating a McGovern nomination in 1972. While both men were mauled badly in their general elections, they laid the foundations for a remaking of their parties with ultimately enormous effects on policy in America. While Democrats did not welcome the portentous election of Gingrich as Minority Whip in 1989, they despised him for his aggressiveness, not because they understood how he threatened their majority.

This is not to say that Pelosi will follow in the footsteps of Goldwater, Reagan, and Gingrich as a conviction politician who will rearrange the electoral deck in her party’s favor. There is one major difference among these cases: not all convictions are created equal. And Pelosi’s convictions on topics ranging from taxes to Iraq to abortion and gay rights are not the convictions that will help her party reconnect with the American majority today. They can, however, help her party reenergize its base, which would itself be no small accomplishment. Furthermore, if events work against the Republicans, she can put her party in a position to reap a windfall by having laid out a principled case for a dramatic shift in policy long before anyone was buying.

The other reason for Republicans to beware of Nancy Pelosi is that politics is not everything. It is, rather, ancillary to governing. When it comes to governing, Pelosi will make George W. Bush’s life harder, not easier. For example, in the realm of foreign policy, Bush’s congressional triumph on the Iraq resolution would have carried considerably less authority if the House Democratic leadership had turned it into an issue of partisan division rather than embracing the president, as former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt did. National unity in a very difficult time is clearly threatened by the victory of the Pelosi Democrats. In any sensible consideration of the situation, this fact must outweigh in importance whatever potential partisan electoral gains Republicans might anticipate.

Thus, Bush and Republicans will be facing an opponent who is more easily portrayed as an extremist but who will also almost surely be more focused, more divisive, and more coherent than her predecessor. This challenge will require focus and coherence in return; it will require the consistent public articulation of an argument that is better. That such an argument exists is doubtless true. That Republicans will locate it and make it effectively cannot be taken for granted; and for that reason Republicans will be mistaken to leave its formulation to chance. They must be prepared to engage and to persuade—for the sake of their party and their country. It will not be enough to disdain the Democrats’ new leader and utter the magic words “San Francisco Democrat.” Ideological hubris is not a monopoly of the left, though sometimes it seems so. If Republicans forget that, they may wake up someday to Speaker Pelosi.

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.