WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had just finished a typically discursive floor speech shortly before the year-end adjournment when a very liberal member approached her second-in-command, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and whispered in his ear: "Steny, is it not time for a coup?"
It obviously was not time to oust Pelosi and replace her with Hoyer. House Democrats do not get rid of their leaders with coups, as Republicans have during the last half-century. Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with Pelosi's performance is pervasive across the ideological spectrum. Her colleagues grumble that under her leadership, the party lacks focus and a clear agenda necessary to take advantage of Republican disarray.
This deficiency is referred to by some House Democrats as "the Nancy problem," but it really transcends failings of their party leader. They remain tied to obsolete practices that freeze in place aged committee leaders. Their rhetoric betrays inability to free themselves from New Deal tax-and-spend policies. The Republican majority looks divided, out of gas and threatened by serious scandals. But Democrats fear they are ill-equipped to seize their opportunity.
The Democratic Caucus vote that propelled Pelosi to power was cast Oct. 10, 2001, when Pelosi defeated Hoyer for party whip, 118 to 95. But the authenticity of that outcome always has been questioned inside the caucus because of the exaggerated influence by Pelosi's fellow Californians. Thirty of the outsized California delegation's 31 Democrats voted for Pelosi, some reluctantly. Minus them, Hoyer had a clear edge over Pelosi of 95 to 88.
Many Democrats inside and outside of Congress see the wrong person elevated as their House leader by accident of geography. It is hard to deny that Hoyer surpasses Pelosi in backroom strategy sessions, in floor debate or in television interviews. The man from southern Maryland seems a better voice for a party trying to expand its base than the woman from San Francisco.
Today's gap between minority leader and minority whip is wide and visible. Hoyer is no conservative and delivers the partisan stemwinders expected of a party leader. But he also is unapologetically pro-business and pro-national defense, while Pelosi consistently runs in the opposite direction. Hoyer voted to go to war and for bankruptcy reform, while Pelosi was against both.
When Rep. John Murtha in effect called for immediate U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, Pelosi in the secrecy of the party caucus embraced that dangerous political course. After two weeks of internal debate, Pelosi backed down to Hoyer's position of effectively letting the House members individually pick their own way.
It is not ideology, however, that makes many Democrats yearn for Hoyer. The congressman who whispered about a coup in Hoyer's ear is much closer to Pelosi ideologically. He and other Democrats are simply appalled by Pelosi's image as a party leader. While she got by delivering 60-second speeches as an ordinary congresswoman, she seems distracted and lost in making four-minute Democratic closing arguments on a bill.
Pelosi neither sets an agenda nor offers inspiring messages, but she cannot be held wholly responsible for the superficial quality of Democratic rhetoric from the House floor. Debate on bills ordinarily is led by the senior committee member, who is bound by cliches and stereotypes. One of the best and longest lasting of Newt Gingrich's reforms when he became House speaker in 1995 was to institute term limits for Republican committee heads. The Democrats keep their leaders as long as they live.
The Democratic management of legislation in the House is handled by the likes of John Dingell, 79, Energy and Commerce Committee (25 terms); Tom Lantos, 77, International Relations (13 terms); John Conyers, 76, Judiciary (21 terms); David Obey, 67, Appropriations (18 terms); and John Spratt, 63, Budget (12 terms). These are men who generally talk about moving the previous question more than moving the nation.
The combination of such senior citizens and the 65-year-old Pelosi produce a mind-numbing product that is not calculated to take advantage of an unpopular war and a climate of scandal. Pelosi is reported fearful that if Democrats do not finally regain control of the House this year, she may be replaced by Hoyer. There are House Democrats who feel that change ought to come sooner to prevent another election defeat.