The collapse of Richard Gephardt’s leadership of the House Democratic Caucus did not occur on November 5, when the party lost seats in an election where history and economic trends suggested that it should have gained them. That result was simply a confirmation of the crisis that had been evident for more than a year. From the first days of George W. Bush’s selected-not-elected presidency, it was clear that Gephardt was unprepared to serve as the leader of Congressional opposition to a Republican president. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he simply stopped trying. That doomed Democratic chances of taking over the House in 2002, as Gephardt failed to define an opposition agenda and took positions out of sync with his own caucus.
That was never more evident than on October 10 when, after Gephardt helped craft the resolution authorizing Bush to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq, the majority of House Democrats voted against the plan. In surprising result, 126 House Democrats opposed it with only 81 joining their leader Gephardt in supporting it.
Among the Democrats who opposed the resolution was House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who won the caucus’ Number 2 leadership position last year. Pelosi, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argued — as did Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Florida — that the Bush administration had failed to make a case for its position. “I have seen no evidence or intelligence that suggests that Iraq indeed poses an imminent threat to our nation,” she said, in one of the most powerful indictments of the resolution. “If the Administration has that information, they have not shared it with the Congress.”
Pelosi’s stance placed her in direct opposition not just to the Bush administration but to Gephardt. And it stirred immediate discussion among House Democrats about what it might be like to be a genuine opposition party. An aggressive progressive, Pelosi has long argued that Democrats need to clearly distinguish themselves from Republicans on domestic and international issues. Now, she can point to Tuesday’s election results — in which Democrats who opposed the Bush agenda on taxes and war ran better than those who compromised with the administration — as confirmation of her view.
With Gephardt stepping down as minority leader, Pelosi is running hard to replace him. She is not starting from scratch. Speculation about Gephardt’s departure — in order to focus on a 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination — was rampant in the House even before the election, and Pelosi has been quietly organizing support. But she was not alone in that endeavor. Another prominent House Democrat, Caucus chair Martin Frost, D-Texas, has been running just as hard as Pelosi. On Thursday, a third candidate, Harold Ford, Jr., a 33-year-old centrist from Tennessee, entered the contest with a promise of “a clean break from the ways of the past.”