Pelosi's moment

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Oct 24, 2006 12:01 AM

Republican partisans are ratcheting up predictions of doom if Democrats get control of Congress on Nov. 7. They have also been laying a guilt trip on any Republican considering not voting. You'd think that we were in danger of having our government taken over by totalitarians who will enslave us in January.

OK. I know this is an exaggeration. But I don't recall such heavy-handed pressure previously being used by either party in midterm congressional elections. Normally, such all-out efforts are reserved for presidential contests where the stakes are higher. By turning up the heat so high this time, I think Republicans risk sounding like the boy who cried wolf. This may make it harder to motivate their base in 2008.

Oddly, many of the same people predicting disaster if Democrats retake Congress are among the most optimistic about Republicans' maintaining control. They seem to feel that it would be inconsistent to advocate Republican control while predicting a Democratic win. Personally, I have never understood how being a Pollyanna contributed to political victory. I've always thought that having an accurate assessment of one's political opponents was a better way of achieving it.

I have no special insights on the likely Election Day results. I defer to those analysts like Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg who have been handicapping congressional races for years. Their view is that it is almost a certainty that Democrats will get enough seats to at least retake the House of Representatives and probably the Senate, as well. To avoid this result, the Republicans would have to win all of the toss-up races, something that seems unlikely.

Republicans respond that they still have a cash advantage and a superior get-out-the-vote operation. But I have doubts about the value of both this year. Running more television commercials with a lame message may well lose more votes than it gains. And as far as Republican voter-targeting is concerned, this has always seemed like a lot of hype to me. I believe that its currency comes mainly from Democrats who would rather believe that their electoral losses resulted from a better Republican organization than the unpopularity of their candidates and policies.

Assuming that Democrats do retake the House, I think they will know they have a great opportunity and will work hard not to blow it. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of San Francisco, who will be speaker of the House, may be one of the most liberal members of Congress, but she is also a skilled politician. She has already put out the word that no craziness will be tolerated from the new committee chairmen, many of whom, like her, are from the Democratic Party's far left wing.

Pelosi will be aided in this effort by organizational changes put in place by, ironically, Republican Newt Gingrich when he was speaker. He weakened the committees, slashed their staffs and centralized power in the speaker's office. Consequently, Democratic committee chairmen are going to find that they have a lot less influence than they did the last time the Democrats were in control.

Furthermore, the 37 moderate and conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats have let it be known that they will not be shy about using their clout to keep the lefties in check. I wouldn't be surprised if they looked for an early opportunity to join with Republicans on some issue just to show that they can, thereby putting the Democratic leadership on notice that the party's right wing cannot be taken for granted.

Democratic fire-breathers in the House will also be reminded quickly that they cannot accomplish much legislatively when Republicans in the Senate can filibuster their bills to death and President Bush can veto them should they reach his desk. Republicans will have more than enough votes in both houses to sustain a veto easily. For these reasons, there is no possibility that any legislation will be enacted that would seriously harm the economy or national security.

Keep in mind as well that Republicans have lots of experience using the power of the presidency to keep Democrats in Congress under control, even when they had much larger majorities than they are going to have in January. Indeed, I believe that a key reason why Republicans held the White House so frequently in the postwar period is precisely because voters thought that congressional Democrats needed adult supervision.

If Democrats play their cards right and avoid confrontations with the White House on hot-button issues, I think it will aid their chances of winning the presidency in 2008. But the party's left-wing base may be so hungry for red meat that it will be forced into self-destructive fights that will end up strengthening Republican efforts to keep the White House. Which way things go will depend mainly on Pelosi's leadership skills.