The Washington Times

Much of the commentary following the House Democratic Caucus’s election of Nancy Pelosi as the new minority leader focused on the question of whether the proud San Francisco Democrat wasn’t too far to the left to be an asset in Democrats’ quest to regain the House. I think this focus is misplaced, along with the performance standard for Mrs. Pelosi it implies. Mrs. Pelosi’s real constituency is not the national electorate; it’s House Democrats. What matters is how and where she leads them.

By the time of the next election, Democrats will have been out of power in the House for a decade. This, along with the GOP’s pickup of seats in a midterm election despite a [more precisely, because of the] Republican in the White House, ought finally to disabuse Democrats of the lingering impression that GOP control is simply an aberration that will be corrected in the natural order of things.

Moreover, no Democrat can rationally be looking ahead to the 2004 election with gleeful anticipation. In the absence of a bad war in Iraq and a stalled economy, George W. Bush looks formidable indeed. Hoping for trouble in Iraq and economic stagnation besides is neither seemly nor an electoral strategy. Moreover, Mr. Bush has demonstrated that he is willing to put himself on the line for the party’s overall electoral fortunes. He will go where his approval ratings will do Republican candidates good. He will be looking for coattails.

In sum, if Democrats are going to win the House, they are going to need a strategy for doing so, and because they will be facing stiff resistance, they had better be prepared to take a longer view in getting from here to there than the two-year election cycle.

Nancy Pelosi will no doubt not lack for invitations to appear on “Meet the Press” and the like, and no doubt she will accept many. But it’s important to recall here how difficult it is to drive a message in Washington without controlling at least one of the White House, the House and the Senate.

Even Tom Daschle as Senate majority leader found himself dangerously exposed to political counterattack when he stepped up in opposition [which may account for his bizarre denunciation of Rush Limbaugh last week – the last, best villain of the Democratic Party]. The position of House minority leader is a lesser platform offering equal downside risk.

Mr. Daschle’s frustration is, in fact, richly instructive for Mrs. Pelosi. Mr. Daschle may believe that his political problem stemmed from Republicans metaphorically clubbing him [or perhaps not metaphorically, in his more fevered moments]. But in fact, their origin was in a Democratic conference that would not stand behind him when he spoke up. The story quickly became one about Democrats’ reaction to Mr. Daschle, not the GOP’s reaction.

If Mrs. Pelosi is as smart a practical politician as people say she is, she will accordingly be spending most of her time in the next two years not taking potshots as George W. Bush but talking to Democrats in the House.

The first task she faces is unifying House Democrats behind her leadership. Democrats will find this difficult, but if Mrs. Pelosi is going to be effective as their leader in advancing their collective fortunes, their first impulse when they hear her speak is going to have to be to back her up wholeheartedly. Mrs. Pelosi, for her part, needs to learn from them how far they can comfortably follow her and how far they can uncomfortably follow her – where that line is and under what circumstances she can cross it.

The next task, I think, is going to have to be an agenda. “Republican Lite” won’t work, especially given Mr. Bush’s success in filing down the party’s sharper edges. Nor, I think, will something vaguely in favor of Good Things and against Bad Things. Platitudes best serve those who are already ahead [and even there, they are risky]. Nor, finally, does it seem likely to me that the old warhorses of the Democratic agenda have much fight left in them: minimum wage?

No, I think House Democrats need to offer a robust alternative to the GOP vision of governance. For reasons of personal preference, I am notoriously bad at thinking up things for government to do. But I think I’d be looking at items along the lines of a huge ramp-up of national service programs [on the way to universal national service], in the name of giving something back to the community; a value-added tax on luxury goods [on the way to a more generalized VAT to generate revenue for other programs]; and a big increase in support for after-school learning programs [which is both child care and a couple more hours to teach].

Take the Pelosi challenge: Identify the big issues, poll them, focus-group them, learn how to talk about them, get every member saying the same thing about each of them, put them into a package in 2006, and call it anything you like except the Contract with America.