Soon-to-be-former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to seek the position of House Minority Leader has created a problem for her lieutenants.

Winners get three top jobs: speaker, majority leader, majority whip.

Losers get two top jobs: minority leader, minority whip.

That’s set up the competition between current Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, and current Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-South Craolina, for the Minority Whip position.

There has been some grumbling about the contest, with suggestions that Democrats cannot afford a fight about leadership and direction of the party’s caucus in the House. But I agree with Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who argues that "Democrats suffered devastating losses on Election Day. No way to sugarcoat it, no way to spin it. But choosing the leadership team for Democrats in the House is the first opportunity we have to chart a course back to the majority, so I want a campaign, I want a vote…"

"A competitive leadership election will be the Democratic Party’s first chance to cut through hundreds of millions of dollars of third-party and corporate ads and remind the American people that we’re still standing, and what we stand for. We should make it clear there is no retreating and we stand by the values and policies that make us Democrats," notes Gutierrez, one of the chamber’s streadiest progressives. "It’s easy to apologize and surrender. That would be a mistake. Instead of waving a white flag and waiting for the smoke of battle to clear, it’s time to dig in and fight. I believe if we retreat now, we will never recover the ground we surrender. If we watch quietly from the sidelines, extremists who are hostile to our accomplishments will yell the loudest, get the most attention, dominate the debate and could do a great deal of damage.

So the whip race is a good thing.

But who is the best choice?

The contest is being portrayed as a fight between a centrist (Hoyer) and a liberal (Clyburn). But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Hoyer’s clearly got the advantage, with many of Pelosi allies and a number of key players in the caucus—such as Joint Economic Committee chair Carolyn Maloney, of New York—rallying to him.

Hoyer gets marks for reaching out to progressives. When The Nation and Progressive Democrats of America hosted a series of forums at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008, Hoyer appeared with us and reflected on his roots as a civil rights campaigner in the 1960s. He earned a warm reception and it was obvious that he got on well with many of the more progressive House members who participated in the forums. Outreach of the sort Hoyer has done counts for something and he has been rewarded in this race with endorsements from progressive members such as New York’s Jerry Nadler and Colorado’s Jared Polis.

But leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus are voicing strong support for Clyburn.

"Majority Whip, Jim Clyburn has been an extremely effective consensus-builder, rounding up the votes for what has been called the most productive Congress in decades. Thanks to his leadership and precise vote counting skills, we were able to pass the Recovery Act, health care reform (which included landmark student loan reform), Wall Street reform, and many other pieces of legislation that are helping to turn our country around," wrote Congressional Black Caucus co-chair Barbara Lee, D-California, in a "Dear Colleague" letter backing the long-time CBC member. "As we transition into the minority, it is even more important that Jim Clyburn continue in his role as Whip."

“[Progressives are] going to play a key role in this next Congress, and that diversity has to be represented in the leadership,” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey, D-California, said as she and her fellow ch-chair, Arizona’s Raul Grijalva, talked up Clyburn’s candidacy.

What’s the right play here? Ultimately, Hoyer and Clyburn are both credible and appealing contenders for a key role in the caucus. In such circumstances, it’s best to put personalities aside at look at where the candidates stand on the issues.

By that measure, Clyburn’s got a lot more going for him.

He voted against the resolution authorizing former President George W. Bush to take the United States to war with Iraq, while Hoyer backed it.

Similarly, when the House took up the most important economic issue of the past decade—extending permanent most-favored-nation trading status to China—Clyburn sided with trade unions, environmental groups and human rights organizations to oppose the move. Hoyer backed then–President Clinton’s China deal; in fact, Hoyer whipped up support for the scheme, as he has for other free-trade deals. That stance is one of the positions that has won Clyburn the backing of independent progressives such as Oregon Congressman Pete DeFazio, who have been arguing that House Democrats must be more outspoken on issues of concern to working Americans.

Those votes cast at critical junctures when it mattered to get things right, along with a host of others cast of the course of a long career, mark Clyburn as a solid and consistent progressive who "gets" the need to fight for a set of ideals—not just a partisan advantage. That, argues Gutierrez, is going to be critical when Republicans try to roll back not just health-care reform and Wall Street reform but the New Deal and Great Society programs that are in the sights of the conservatives adventurers such as incoming House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

"I know Rep. Jim Clyburn will stand with me to stop them. I don’t support him because he’s my friend and we’ve served together a long time. Or because he’s African-American. His seniority and his race are meaningless to me. I support Jim Clyburn because he will not apologize for being a progressive. He will not hesitate to stand up for jobs, to stand up for healthcare. He’ll stand up for justice, and stand up for inclusion and equality," argues the Illinois congressman.

"When Republicans start ramming through rollbacks on these accomplishments next year, we will need about 146 votes to sustain the President’s veto on issues vital to the American people. Soft leadership unsure of what we stand for can easily let our 178 votes slip away below 146. Fundamental accomplishments will be at stake," says Gutierrez. "Democrats can’t apologize their way to victory. We need a Democratic whip who supports the goals of progressive policies and then is willing to fight sensibly to defend those convictions and principles. We need a man whose commitment to progressive values and inclusive policies is deeply rooted in his faith and care for his fellow men and women. We need a leader who will remind the American people what Democrats stand for—yesterday, today and tomorrow. We need Jim Clyburn."

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