Nancy Pelosi says she wants to continue leading House Democrats because she is "driven by the urgency" of creating jobs and protecting healthcare reform, financial regulation, Social Security and Medicare. She’s got her priorities right. Now the soon-to-be-former speaker must get the politics right. The place to begin is the lame-duck session of Congress. The period after an election is not set aside for rearranging furniture; Congress sits for two years, not twenty-two months, and it’s supposed to do its job for the entire term. That doesn’t mean Democrats should be blind to the election results; to the contrary, they should respond to them—while getting things done for the American people.
The fundamental issue of the 2010 election campaign was jobs. The campaign played out in the shadow of an almost 10 percent official unemployment rate and an unofficial rate (counting those who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work) closer to 17 percent. Every exit poll said voters were concerned about caring for the unemployed, promoting job creation and taking steps to develop a twenty-first-century economy that benefits working families.
That’s why Pelosi is smart to link the defense of healthcare reform, financial regulation and long-term commitments to maintaining Social Security with the need to create jobs. She can highlight the linkage during the lame-duck session by focusing on fundamentals: extending unemployment benefits, shoring up Medicare and Medicaid, and assuring that a stopgap spending bill contains funding not just to keep the federal government operating into the next year but to help state and local governments and school districts across the country do the same. These are all popular initiatives; Pelosi and Harry Reid—who still controls the Senate for the next two years—have no reason to accept the conventional wisdom that the election produced a mandate for conservative ideas, neglecting the plight of jobless Americans, cutting social services or forcing teacher layoffs in the middle of the school year.
Of course, the Republicans and their amen corner will screech about spending. Good. Democrats should take the moment to argue for letting the Bush tax cuts expire and using the new revenue to maintain federal, state and local services in tough economic times. President Obama has made the task harder by sending signals about compromises on the tax issue, but if compromise is necessary, the only credible one is giving relief to working families—not billionaires. The American people will get the point if Democrats make it aggressively and without apology.
Pelosi should also move the Fair Elections Now Act onto the floor for a vote, advancing a debate on an issue that Republicans don’t want discussed. We just finished the most expensive midterm election in US history; shouldn’t House and Senate committees hold hearings to look at how much was spent by corporations and billionaires, at the impact of that money on the elections and at the influence it will have on government? Republicans will scream, and incoming House Oversight chair Darrell Issa will surely shut down those hearings in January while opening hundreds of investigations on Democratic reforms. Bring it on. In her new role as minority leader, Pelosi could use her bully pulpit to ask essential questions. What is the GOP trying to hide? What do Republicans want to roll back? That’s a fighting stance, not a surrender position. And it’s one Democrats should maintain through the lame-duck session and into the 112th Congress.