Sure, she’s easily caricatured as an elitist West Coast liberal at odds with the salt-of-the-earth denizens of Middle America. And now many pundits are pointing to the re-election of Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats as a clear sign of all that’s wrong with the Democratic Party. It’s not. Nor is she to blame for the party’s recent woes or current identity crisis. The fact that Democrats are increasingly spineless, cannot communicate or defend their agenda and refuse to fight for their core belies—as illustrated most recently in the debate over the Bush tax cuts—is not Pelosi’s fault.
Despite her polarizing image, Pelosi has been one of the Democrats' few effective leaders, having steered nearly all of Obama's agenda through the House in the past two years. Obama subsequently failed to effectively sell those policies while the Senate dithered on so many of them. Yet for some reason Pelosi gets the blame for the sins of Obama, Reid, Emanuel, Summers, Geithner, the Blue Dogs and all the other actors who contributed to the party’s blowout in the last election.
“We didn’t lose the election because of me,” Pelosi argued recently. She’s right. Republicans tried and failed to tie Democratic candidates to her in 2006 and 2008. It worked in the past election only because of the economy and the country’s sour anti-incumbent mood. Interestingly enough, after Republicans lost the House in ’06, no one called on John Boehner to resign as leader of the House Republicans. He was well-suited to the job of steering the minority—keeping his caucus in line, drawing a contrast with the ruling party, funneling money and resources to promising candidates; all skills, incidentally enough, that Pelosi excels at. (Also, for all the talk of her unfavorable ratings, she is still better liked among the public than Harry Reid, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. The public hates all the Congressional leaders!)
Democrats today look like their pre-2004 selves, afraid to stand up for what they believe in and meekly hoping for compromise with a Republican Party that wants nothing of the sort. Instead of trying to undermine her, Democrats should study the victories Pelosi achieved in the past Congress: swift passage of healthcare reform, the economic stimulus and financial reform, and, unlike the Senate, approval of the Employee Free Choice Act, cap-and-trade, the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell," pay equity for women, an audit of the BP claims fund and a plethora of critical jobs bills. When given power, she aggressively wielded it, which is more than you can say for Obama or Senate Democrats. Ironically, she is the one now in the minority. But Democrats still control the presidency and the Senate. They should take a page from Pelosi and start acting like it.
Postscript: I debated this topic on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show yesterday with Dave Weigel of Slate and Alicia Menendez of the New Democrat Network; if you’d like to hear more: