Commentary: Pelosi faces a much tougher leader role than Gingrich
WASHINGTON -- The most important tension within the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is not between liberals and conservatives or free traders and fair traders. It is between older members who once enjoyed the power and per...
WASHINGTON -- The most important tension within the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is not between liberals and conservatives or free traders and fair traders. It is between older members who once enjoyed the power and perks of majority status, and their younger colleagues who will experience real power for the first time.
The older members -- many of whom will be taking over committee chairmanships -- came to political maturity in the pre-Clinton, pre-Gingrich era, before the full flowering of the permanent campaign. They governed from a House in which committee leaders typically had more power than the House speaker in shaping legislation.
But nearly two-thirds of the Democrats in the new House were elected since 1994, meaning they have only known life in the opposition during a time when Republicans radically centralized control in their leadership. In their hunger to overturn the Republican majority, these younger Democrats honed their strategic shrewdness by taking the lesson from Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich that politics and policy are inevitably linked.
The key to Nancy Pelosi's success as speaker will be to find a way to bring the old bulls and the young turks together.
Democratic optimists -- now that the party has again won an election, the phrase is no longer an oxymoron -- think the management of the 2006 campaign is a signal that Pelosi will draw on the talents of both groups. She entrusted campaign strategy to Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the quintessential young turk and Clinton administration veteran who out-toughed Karl Rove in a contest of political will.
Emanuel, who turned 47 on Wednesday, surrounded himself with a talented group of lieutenants, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida (she's 40 and was elected in 2004) and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland (47, elected in 2002).
And despite some moments of culture clash, the more senior Democrats largely went along with the program since they, too, had become desperate for power.
But now that Democrats have the majority, Pelosi will not have the authority Gingrich had to centralize power and override the wishes of the committee chairs, even when doing so might be politically useful. Because Gingrich was widely seen as the architect of the Republicans' 1994 victory, he effectively became leader of the entire party. Neither Pelosi nor, for that matter, any other speaker in the foreseeable future, can hope for such dominance.
The upshot is that Pelosi will be cajoling her committee leaders (the average age of the anticipated chairs is close to 67) to keep their eyes on separate time frames: two years, and, say, a decade. Democrats will need to be -- and also look -- effective enough to re-elect their majority, and perhaps even win the presidency, in 2008. And they have to accept that many of the reforms they seek will take far more than a single congressional term to achieve.
There is also this: The basis for this new majority is very different from the one Democrats enjoyed between 1954 and 1994. The old majority depended heavily on representatives from the big cities of the North and rural areas in the South. The new majority, as Emanuel has been preaching, was built on gains in suburban and exurban areas and a new brand called "suburban populism." The Democrats are increasingly the party of the metropolitan areas, suburban as well as urban, especially outside the South.
The real test of Pelosi's leadership is yet to come, and it involves squaring a series of circles: how to democratize the House without giving up the ability to coordinate its actions; how to emphasize the substance of policy without losing sight of the imperatives of the next election; and how to bring together the legislative experience of the old with the political energy of the young. Compared with Pelosi, Gingrich had it easy.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is email@example.com .