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.