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Morning Jay: “Dump Pelosi” is a Red Herring!

6:30 AM, Oct 21, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Increasingly, House Democrats from moderate districts are calling on the enormously unpopular Nancy Pelosi not to run for speaker next year.  The latest comes from Jason Altmire:

In the latest sign that some moderate Democratic incumbents want Nancy Pelosi’s speakership to come to an end, Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire said the dynamics of the next Congress would “certainly necessitate new leadership in the Speaker’s position.”

 The sophomore Democratic lawmaker, who was part of the 40-plus class of “Majority Makers” that helped Democrats rise to power in 2006, stopped short of ruling out a vote for Pelosi for Speaker, but he said he would prefer that she step aside from the outset.

 “I hope that she is not a candidate for Speaker,” he said. “I don’t think the issues that she’s pursued are good for the district I represent.”

A Democrat who represents the north Pittsburgh suburbs, Altmire has usually voted against the most controversial pieces of legislation in the 111th Congress – against cap-and-trade, against health care every step of the way (including on the Education and Labor Committee).  His opponent, Keith Rothfus, has raised little money.  Even so, Altmire is acting like he is in trouble.  He’s running ads in the district attacking Rothfus for supporting free trade, which suggests that Altmire is worried about his blue-collar base in the western part of the district, rather than the swing areas in northern Allegheny County.  And now this shot at Pelosi. 

Altmire has long struck me as the kind of representative who is careful to stick his finger in the wind to see which way it’s blowing before he makes a move.  So, this has to be a sign that there is a strong “Dump Pelosi” vibe among the Democratic rank and file.

And why not?  Republicans have done a good job lashing every Democrat to Pelosi’s mast, and Altmire’s response makes some sense as a political strategy (although the obvious rejoinder is: if she is so bad, why did you support her in the first place?). 

But let’s be clear about one thing: Nancy Pelosi is not the problem with the Democratic caucus in the United States House of Representatives.  Rather, her speakership is a symptom of the problem, which is that the power structure in the party caucus is tilted far to the left of the swing voters who empowered congressional Democrats back in 2006. 

The root of the problem is the organization of the Democratic vote across the 435 congressional districts, as seen in this bar chart:

If you are wondering why a political party elected to fix the economy instead committed itself to a massively unpopular health care reform that has been a liberal dream since 1946, this graph is a big part of the answer.  Sixty-nine House districts gave Obama 70 percent of the vote or more (compared to 21 districts that went so heavily for George W. Bush in 2004).  The Democrats in these districts occupy the safest districts in the entire country.  No Republican wave can possibly breach their defenses.  Accordingly, their political incentives revolve entirely around liberal pressure groups and Democratic clients like the labor unions – and not at all around the swing voters who determine control of the government.  They are free to chase the ghosts of FDR, Truman, and LBJ, so long as organized labor supports it.

Reinforcing this structure is the fact that the House caucus operates on a seniority system, at least by and large.  Because these members from far left districts are undefeatable, they tend to be the most senior, and thus chair the important committees, as this chart illustrates:

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