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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:

This chart includes the key policymaking committees in the House, and it pretty much speaks for itself.  We can get another read on the tilt of these leading Democrats through geography.  Below is a Google Map with a marker on the districts of all the committee chairs, plus the top party leaders:

If you are in need of assistance from a powerful Democrat and you find yourself on I-5 in California or I-95 between Baltimore and Boston, it’s a safe bet you’ll be able to track one down.  Otherwise, tough luck!

Why has this happened?  

It’s a consequence of the shift in the Democratic coalition in the last 40 years.  The Republicans won a majority of Southern House seats for the first time since Reconstruction in 1994, and all but a handful of the old time conservative Democrats (like Mississippi’s Gene Taylor) have since been cleaned out. 

That left the Northern liberals with the run of the party caucus.  The 70-year battle between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives was finally settled, and the Northern liberals won in a rout.  Of course, they are not nearly enough to constitute a majority of the entire House, so what they need are Democrats from the swing regions of the Midwest and the Mountain West.  That’s exactly what they got in 2006 and 2008 -- more than 50 pickups, typically from districts that voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and almost always by Democratic candidates who promised to be independent voices that would speak for the middle class. 

Altmire is a great example of why the party came to power, and why it is now in such trouble.  He defeated incumbent Republican Melissa Hart by a narrow margin in 2006.  He won by a larger margin in 2008, and his victory depended entirely upon the crossover vote from McCain/Palin supporters.  He is one of those Midwestern Democrats who has brought the party from minority to majority status.  Like I said, he has done a pretty fair job of representing the Fourth District, but he possesses very little power over policy.  He’s the 19th most senior Democrat on Education and Labor, 11th on Small Business, and 23rd on Transportation and Infrastructure.  Put simply, he’s a backbencher.  All of the Democrats who were swept in over the last two cycles are in exactly the same spot.  Nevertheless, their presence in the House has empowered the Northern liberals -- mostly on the coasts -- to pursue the agenda they have waited for decades to enact.

Pelosi is a red herring because all she has done is represent these Northern liberals.  You could call the Northern liberals from safe Districts the “majority of the majority.”  Her obligation as speaker of the House is minimally to represent a majority of the majority, and from that perspective she has done a fairly good job.  Has she been too pushy and too partisan?  It depends on your perspective.  To conservatives, obviously the answer is yes.  To independent swing voters, again the answer is in the affirmative.  But what about liberal Democrats from the Upper West Side, Berkley, or Ann Arbor?  To them, she’s been fighting the good fight against the radical, reactionary right wing -- and that is who she is ultimately responsible to because they are the power brokers of the House Democratic caucus.

Suppose the Democrats do indeed dump Pelosi, and elevate Steny Hoyer.  What changes?  Hoyer would bring a different style of leadership that would probably not be as nasty, but he would ironically be representing an even more liberal House caucus.  If the GOP picks up a net of 38 seats, and the Democrats hold the majority, the liberal percentage of the Democratic caucus will go up, not down.  It will be moderates like Altmire who will get booted from the chamber, while liberals like John Conyers will continue to enjoy lifetime leases on their seats.  Hoyer might be a nicer person than the graceless Pelosi, but he’ll still be obliged to battle on behalf of the majority of the caucus, which will become more liberal, not less!

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