When House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi sat down for a live interview with CNN’s Judy Woodruff three days after the November 5 election, every question from Woodruff featured some variation on the theme that “electing a liberal like you to the [House] leadership would consign the party to permanent minority status.” Instead of politely jamming this line of questioning down Woodruff’s throat, however, Pelosi, who that day had announced she had the votes to succeed Dick Gephardt as House minority leader, replied, “I don’t think that’s constructive.” Here she was, on the verge of being charged with turning her party into a fighting force of opposition to the Bush White House and new House majority leader Tom DeLay, and Pelosi was pulling punches. Claiming that “people elected me to be a leader and not an advocate for my own point of view,” she sounded disturbingly like, well, Dick Gephardt.

The explanation for Pelosi’s caution was not hard to find: Word of Gephardt’s departure and Pelosi’s arrival may have been greeted with delight by grassroots activists who are ready to take on the GOP, but it was immediately met with a campaign to prevent the California Democrat from changing the ideological and strategic approaches that have rendered Democrats all but incapable of challenging a popular President and his party. That campaign was the work of a Republican White House that fears an aggressive Democratic Party; of forces within the Democratic Party that are too corrupted or too afraid to change course; and of media that have reduced political coverage to the parroting of official spin.

Of course, the ultimate tests for Pelosi will not come in an interview with Judy Woodruff. Everyone agreed before the leadership vote that Pelosi’s anticipated tenure will be defined by how she leads her caucus into battle against the Bush Administration’s misguided foreign and economic policies. But she will not pass those tests by tempering her progressive positions. If Pelosi is not going to be Pelosi, then the Democrats will remain, as no less a commentator than Rush Limbaugh suggests, “a party that lost its soul.”

Pelosi occupies a position far closer to the soul of the party than Gephardt or soon-to-be-ex-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle–as was obvious when she became the highest-ranking party leader to join the majority of Congressional Democrats in opposing authorization of the Bush Administration to attack Iraq. By the standards of Congress and most American voters, Pelosi is a liberal. Through fifteen years in Congress, she has regularly achieved 100 percent ratings from organized labor and from environmental, consumer and human rights groups. She has echoed the enthusiasm of her San Francisco constituents and other urban progressives for gay rights, AIDS funding and reproductive freedom. But she has also, especially in recent years, been a critical player in battles on trade issues that are the highest priority of blue-collar Democrats in heartland towns far from San Francisco.

Pelosi’s combination of liberal values and strategic savvy–she learned her politics from her father, a New Deal Congressman who played the ward politics of Baltimore well enough to become mayor–has made her a favorite of Democrats who believe the party needs to distinguish itself from Republicans. Yet, as a senior Democrat who is rooting for Pelosi says, “Nancy’s got a great personality and she’s great on the issues, and she could be a perfect leader. But if she’s on the defensive about her politics she could do more harm than good. We can’t afford to be incoherent for two more years. It’ll kill us.” Adds Congressman Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats: “Either Democrats are going to break out of this pattern of being in sync with the Republicans or they are going to be destroyed.”

The sense of a need for a clear break with past practice–which animated a quixotic late-starting challenge to Pelosi by Representative Marcy Kaptur, a maverick reformer who argued the caucus should jettison its fundraising activities–is palpable in Washington. In the aftermath of an election more disastrous for Democrats than initial readings of results suggested, Pelosi is positioned to be the face of change for a party that desperately needs to alter its course–or, perhaps, simply to adopt a course. With Daschle holding on to the leadership of a diminished Senate caucus, and national committee chair Terry McAuliffe seemingly determined to cling to his job, Pelosi’s anticipated elevation is the only evidence of the “major regrouping” that former Vice President Al Gore says Democrats must launch after losing the Senate and falling further back in the House. Still, it remains to be seen how major the Pelosi regrouping will be. “We know what the votes are going to be in the House,” says Representative Dennis Kucinich, chair of the Progressive Caucus, of which Pelosi is a member. “The Republicans are in a clear majority. On a lot of issues we care about, we’re going to lose the votes. That’s not the question. The question is: What do we bring to the votes? How bold will we be in standing up and articulating our differences with Republicans?” Pelosi, whose selection would make her the first woman to lead a Congressional caucus, will have to decide.

The signals Pelosi sent as she launched her bid to replace Gephardt were mixed. She echoed grassroots sentiment when she argued that Democrats need to be a unified party and “must draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and the extreme policies put forward by the Republicans.” And she got high marks from across the caucus for recognizing that House Democrats must make that distinction on economic issues. But her vague remarks about finding “common ground” with the Republicans suggested that Pelosi was still deciding how bold Democrats–and she–should be. Faced with a contentious caucus in which several Southern members are considered likely leapers to the Republican fold, and under pressure to maintain a weakened party’s ability to raise funds, Pelosi was struggling too hard to avoid the “San Francisco liberal” mold into which her critics were trying to stuff her.

If Pelosi is paralyzed by the assault from conservatives both in the White House and in her own party’s Democratic Leadership Council and Blue Dog wings (chief among the latter group is an uninspired challenger for minority leader, Harold Ford Jr.), she will cheat Democrats of the edgy enthusiasm that is her greatest asset. Turnout figures show that Democrats are suffering from a passion deficit. While overall turnout in 2002 was up from the 1998 midterms, Democratic turnout was down. Why? “The Republicans started a class war when they pushed through a tax cut for billionaires in 2001, but the Democrats didn’t fight back,” says Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, an ally of Pelosi’s. “Gephardt and Daschle kept talking about how they were concerned about the tax cut. ‘Concerned’ doesn’t get people to the polls.”

In the sort of midterm election (with a new Republican President) in which Democrats had gained ground in every contest since 1902, the party lost seats in both the House and Senate. And the collapse in Democratic fortunes extended to the states, with the party failing to claim the majority of governorships and losing the majority of state legislative seats for the first time since 1952. Going into a presidential campaign against a Republican who shows signs of coming into his own as a campaigner, whose political operation has grown more sophisticated and gutsier, and whose ability to raise money has improved with the collapse of Congressional opposition, Democrats must contend with the reality that in states like Ohio, Texas, Georgia and Florida, their party is expiring. “There is no Democratic Party in Florida,” Palm Beach County Democratic chair Monte Friedkin bluntly declared after an election that saw his party lose every major race on the ballot.

State by state, the Democrats have not been so weak going into a presidential contest in a half-century. White House political czar Karl Rove talks of 2004 as a “realigning election” that could give conservative Republicans control of the nation for a generation to come. Already, Rove is plotting the political offensive of 2004, a bold push to take seven Democratic Senate seats and secure a veto-proof Republican “supermajority.” New House majority leader Tom DeLay is scanning the list of House contests narrowly won by Democrats in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maine, Georgia and Kansas, looking for opportunities to marginalize not just Democrats but GOP moderates whose influence dwindles as the partisan divide widens.

It will be up to Congressional Democrats to counter the scheming Rove and DeLay. Yet structural differences between the Senate and House mean that strategies for the next two years will differ between the chambers. If Senate Democrats hold Louisianian Mary Landrieu’s seat in a December 7 runoff, they will–with the help of Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords–control 49 of 100 seats. The last genuine Republican moderate, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, who voted against the Iraq resolution, remains a party-switch prospect. Additionally, sometime moderates like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, and mavericks like Arizona’s John McCain, offer Democrats potential partners on particular issues. Democrats retain influence on some committees such as Foreign Relations, where incoming chair Richard Lugar has worked closely with outgoing chair Joseph Biden. Lugar’s internationalist bent has put him at odds with the Bush Administration, and Democrats see him as, if not an ally, at least a sympathetic ear for efforts to contain Bush’s unilateralist tendencies. Democrats have few illusions about progressive legislation passing the next Senate, but the more conservative elements of the Bush agenda–particularly regarding the environment–may be tempered. “The Senate is not as influenced by the White House as the House,” says Senator Russell Feingold. “That leaves room to maneuver.”

There will be fights, however. The Bush Administration plans to resubmit federal appeals court nominations of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen, both of whom were rejected by a Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee. The White House plans to play rough on judicial nominations, especially ones to a Supreme Court with a 5-to-4 prochoice majority. The question is whether Democrats will fight back if two seats on the High Court open up, as anticipated. Prochoice senators can filibuster against an antichoice nominee, but forty-one senators must vote to sustain a filibuster to force the White House to withdraw a nomination.

The dynamic in the House is different. DeLay’s ironclad control of the GOP majority, as well as the wavering loyalties of several Southern Democrats, makes prospects for beating Republican initiatives slim. There are no guarantees that the Bush Administration or its Congressional allies will provide many opportunities to debate foreign policy, and they are unlikely to hand Democrats easy targets like Social Security privatization. But the Administration will seek to make last year’s ten-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut permanent and ask for additional tax breaks for the wealthy, and it is here, says Kucinich, that battle lines must be drawn. “We’ve got to put down the polls and start talking about how the American people have a higher destiny than war and tax cuts for the rich,” he says. Adds Ohio’s Brown, “No matter what we do, Republicans will claim that opposition to Bush is ‘liberal.’ But people will see beyond that spin if we offer a real alternative.” Besides opposing tax cuts for the rich, Brown says, Democrats need “a positive plan: fully fund prescription drug benefits, raise the minimum wage, develop a school reconstruction plan that creates jobs. Maybe we do some tax cuts of our own, but on the exact opposite end of the rate structure from the ones Republicans propose.”

Over the next two years, Brown argues, the Democratic caucus has to deliver one message above all others: “Us versus them, Democrats on the side of working people versus Republicans on the side of economic royalists.” He adds, “This election left us with very little to defend. But if Nancy and the rest of us don’t go on the offensive we will have even less two years from now.”