House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will now be House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Despite dramatica setbacks for her party in the 2010 mid-term elections, which cost Democrats control of the House, Pelosi retained her position at the head of the party’s caucus by an overwhelming margin—150 votes to 43.
That wasn’t a total endorsement. In fact, the 43 votes for her "Blue Dog" challenger, North Carolina Congressman Heath Shuler, represents one of the most significant votes against a sitting party leader of a congressional caucus in a number of years.
And Pelosi still has a great deal of work to do to rebuild the confidence of her caucus after a devastating election cycle. The need for that work was made evident during a bitter two days of closed-door meetings, where complaints about the party’s lack of focus and electoral weakness came not just from conservative "Blue Dogs" but from progressives such as Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio.
“When you have taken the largest losses of any majority in a life time, then I think (it’s a good idea totake) a little time for reflection to better understand the reason for those losses,” said DeFazio, who with Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur proposed delaying the leadership vote to December 8. “Losing across categories where we do not historically lose votes, women, seniors and others, independents, I think we need to better understand that.”
Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky, of Illinois, and Lynn Woolsey, of California, both Pelosi allies, argued, however, that a delay would lead to headlines along the lines of "Democrats in Disarray."
The proposals for a delay were overwhelmingly rejected and Pelosi’s decisive win gives the California Democrat a sufficient mandate to lead Democrats in the coming Congress.
What should she do with that mandate?
Pelosi needs to signal that she understands why Democrats lost and do much more to frame out a winning agenda for the party.
To do this, she must get beyond bumper slogans and talking points.
Pelosi is a veteran political player with deep roots in the Democratic Party establishment and generally well-regarded political instincts. She has long-term relationships with key caucus members and has worked with them in times of political strength and weakness. The parts certainly add up to meet the requirements for a minority leader.
But Pelosi needs to put them together. She needs to use the bully pulpit that is hers for the remainder of her speakership to frame the Democratic agenda that President Obama is either too overwhelmed or too compromised to advance. That does not mean that she has to attack or diminish Obama, but she does need to distinguish herself and the House Democratic Caucus from the White House. There has to be some sense of why it matters to maintain the mission of the caucus as Democrats move from majority to minority status. Above all, she must establish that House Democrats are united around a set of principles for which they are willing to fight—aggressively and effectively.
Pelosi can do this. She has the skills and, her record suggests, she has the proper political perspective. Remember that Pelosi rose to a leadership position in the caucus on the basis of two positions she had taken: opposition to Bill Clinton’s extension of permanent most-favored nation trading status to China, which won her the loyalty of Democrats from the Great Lakes states and the upper Midwest, and opposition to George Bush’s demand for authorization to launch a war-of-whim with Iraq, which earned her the support of anti-war members of a caucus that split over the issue in 2002.
Those were bold stances, which put Pelosi at odds not just with Republicans but with wrongheaded Democrats—even wrongheaded Democrats in the White House. And the distinctions were on issues that mattered: fundamental economic and foreign policy concerns that extend beyond petty partisanship or political positioning. That’s what leadership is about, and if Pelosi is to be an effective minority leader for House Democrats, she must display more if it.