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Morning Jay: Special "Umm...Pelosi?!" Edition!

Yes she can!

6:30 AM, Nov 8, 2010 • By JAY COST
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Conservatives nationwide must still be in shock over this news:

In a letter sent to fellow Democratic lawmakers Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California expresses confidence that she will be elected minority leader and calls for the party to “further modernize” and “communicate” the message that helped them win the House in 2006."In the 24 hours since I wrote seeking your views and your vote for Democratic Leader, I have been very gratified by the extensive and enthusiastic support I have received. Many of our colleagues, from all areas of our diverse Caucus, have been generous with their ideas and their support,” Pelosi wrote, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO. “I am grateful for the confidence that has been placed in me to be House Democratic Leader."

This raises an important question: what the hell is going on with the House Democrats?

For starters, some math. There should be about 192 House Democrats in the upcoming 112th Congress. That means Pelosi has to win the support of 97 members to secure reelection. My back of the envelope calculation suggests that if Pelosi sweeps just three groups – the California delegation, the New York City delegation, and the districts where Barack Obama won 75 percent or more of the vote – she’ll be nearly three-quarters of the way to victory.  Pelosi is well-schooled in the age-old practice of political horse trading. Her father, after all, was the mayor of Baltimore, and San Francisco was for a long time a machine-dominated political city. I’m sure her Rolodex has at least 25 more Democrats who owe her a favor. The fact that Steny Hoyer is planning to challenge Jim Clyburn for minority whip – rather than take on Pelosi – is all the information you need about her chances.

In my opinion, the forces that are propelling Nancy Pelosi to an easy victory as minority leader are the same that induced the congressional Democrats to pursue health care reform while the economy was still struggling. The center of gravity in the congressional caucus is far to the left. Indeed, Obama’s average share of the vote in the remaining Democratic-controlled districts was 64 percent, and on average these Democrats won 61 percent of the vote last week.

The broad divide between the remaining Democrats and the middle of the country is quite evident on the following maps, courtesy of Sean Trende. 

Here's 2008:

Now, here's 2010:

This points to a collective action dilemma for the Democratic caucus. Pelosi has been an aggressive and unyielding advocate for the left during her four years as speaker of the House. Even if we suppose that the Democratic party in general would be better off by getting rid of her, we still must ask whether these remaining Democrats are individually better off. An alternative like Steny Hoyer or Heath Shuler would probably be more willing to compromise with the Republicans, which might be good for the whole party. However, does that serve the political or policy interests of a majority of individual Democrats who remain in the caucus? Maybe not.

In the long term, even these liberal Democrats would probably be better off without Pelsoi. Expand the time horizon past the legislative battles of the 112th Congress, and clearly it is a fair argument that Pelosi will be a political liability in the 2012 House election. So long as Pelosi stands to be the next speaker of the House should the Democrats win, Republicans will have a very potent weapon in their arsenal.

The decision to retain Pelosi in light of this speaks, I think, to a perception problem that seems common on the American left. It’s been part of the narrative that many on the left have been telling themselves since at least 1988 – that the Republicans are just much better at “messaging” than the Democrats. It’s not a matter of policy disagreements, it’s a matter of communication. This has been used to explain many of the Democrats’ big losses in the last 20 years. 

Here is more from Pelosi:

"In addition, we must build the capacity for effectively communicating our message of job creation and opportunity for all, while supporting our signature achievements of health care, Wall Street reform, and Social Security and Medicare," she wrote. "In the 2006 election with our ‘New Direction’ and ‘6 for 06’ message, we spoke with great clarity and unity — and we won. Now, we must further modernize not only that message but the way in which we communicate with constituents."

In other words, the problem hasn’t been the policy -- namely, policy that has been to the left of the districts that swept the party into power in 2006 -- but the way these liberal policies have been explained.

In fairness, this is a myopia of which Republicans have often been guilty. Strong partisans on both sides are loath to admit that they are not, deep down, right smack dab in the true political center – and so they like to explain their losses in ways like this.  

But there appears to be a difference in degree between the two sides, at least in the Congress. After all, in 1998 when the Republicans kept their majority, simply failing to win more seats, Newt Gingrich still stepped down as speaker of the House. Similarly, Dennis Hastert stepped down from the leadership after the GOP defeat in 2006. Now, the Democrats are in their weakest position since 1946, yet Pelosi appears on track to retain the leadership of the congressional Democrats.

In the long run, the structure of the Democratic House caucus is not going to change. So, what the Democrats need is a unifying force -- not a leader who pulls the Democrats to the middle (that's what Republicans need!), but one who instead can harmonize the interests of the left with the middle.  This task is easier said than done. In fact, I'd say that the last president really to do that was FDR. So far, it's pretty clear that Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

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