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Pelosi's Poison

The Speaker's low approval could hurt Democrats in 2010.

12:00 AM, Oct 15, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of the most well-known lawmakers in history. But will her notoriety help Democrats or swell Republican ranks next year?

Unlike presidents and celebrities, congressional leaders usually labor in anonymity. Despite their inside-the-Beltway power and name ID, former House Speakers such as Carl Albert, John McCormack, and Thomas Foley were not exactly household names. Normally it takes a scandal--like the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright over alleged impropriety related to a book publishing deal--to raise the profile of congressional leaders among the general public. And even then, interest is short-lived.

But occasionally--either by design or default--some congressional leaders break through the clutter and achieve a higher level of public attention. Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s was a good example. He became synonymous with the "Republican Revolution" in 1994 that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House. Gingrich was (and is) an idea-generating machine and a political communications genius. But as Speaker, his critics systematically and regularly vilified him and exploited his weaknesses for their own partisan advantage.

Some believe his opponents' strategy worked. In many congressional districts in the 1998 mid-term elections, Republican candidates were attacked as "Gingrich clones" and out of step with "mainstream values." Democrats defied history that year, gaining five seats in the congressional elections--an accomplishment no party had achieved since Democrats gained seats in 1934. In every midterm election since 1934, the president's party had always lost seats in off-year elections until 1998. Speaker Gingrich became an issue in some congressional races that year; will Speaker Pelosi create a similar dynamic for Democrats next year? Some believe conditions are ripe for a repeat.

"The answer is 'yes,'" a senior Republican strategist who worked with the GOP during the 1998 cycle told me. "You need two things: a high-profile Speaker and intensity of feeling. Newt had both of those and so does Speaker Pelosi."

In the late 1990s, many Republicans believed the attacks on Gingrich were inconsequential. "We grew up in politics trying to make these same attacks on Tip (former Speaker O'Neil). It never worked. So we didn't think it would against Newt," the same strategist told me. Yet in the end, the intensity of feeling against Speaker Gingrich helped raise money and energize the Democratic base enough that it made a difference in some swing districts--particularly in the context of an off-year election where interest and turnout tend to be lower.

The same could be true in 2010. "We rarely see a Speaker of the House with this kind of name ID," a Republican pollster told me. "The percent of voters with a hard opinion of her [Pelosi] is very high," he remarked. "Very close to the levels we saw in 1998 when Gingrich was Speaker. That is not a common occurrence."

Why would (or should) a liberal, polarizing and well-known Speaker of the House affect the outcome of other congressional races? The arcane world of congressional procedures and leadership elections is part of the answer.

Few Americans know it, but one of the first votes newly-elected lawmakers cast in Washington is for Speaker of the House. And with rare exception, it's a party-line exercise. So even Democratic congressmen who run as moderate-to-conservative back home all support a liberal Speaker from San Francisco as their initial act as lawmakers. And given the procedural power granted the Speaker under House rules, these same so-called "moderate-to-conservative" Democrats stack the deck in favor of many of the policies they ran against a few months earlier. It's the legislative equivalent of giving a baseball team a 10-run lead before the game even starts. Voting for a liberal Speaker empowers a progressive agenda in Congress that is inconsistent with the positions of many Democrats who campaign as conservatives, and their constituents.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of the House GOP, hopes to help more voters understand this connection. They began asking Democrats from conservative districts to take the "Pelosi Pledge," a commitment not to support the Speaker at the beginning of the next Congress. It's aimed at highlighting the problems with Democrats who campaign as conservatives but then enable a liberal agenda by supporting a liberal Speaker.

Normally an approach like this might not work. But given the Speaker's visibility and well-known left-of-center positions, it could cost Pelosi some votes on the opening day of the next Congress--either from her own side of the aisle or because Republicans gained seats in the 2010 election.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.