Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- As the new House majority caucus prepared to pick its leadership today, Democrats were trying to make the best of the inevitability of Nancy Pelosi as the party's first speaker in a dozen years. They have put out the word that she was not serious in endorsing Rep. John Murtha for majority leader. How much effort she has exerted for her longtime ally is irrelevant, but she has actively solicited votes this week.

The damage to her was irrevocable when she wrote her colleagues last weekend urging them to pick Murtha over Rep. Steny Hoyer. Close associates of Hoyer say her letter stunned him, and he was not alone. While Pelosi had made clear she would vote for Murtha, the public endorsement was unexpected.

Although Pelosi's apologists had stressed that this was not a public campaign but a pro forma endorsement, she began actively campaigning for Murtha Tuesday. Even before that, the letter itself was taken seriously within the Democratic Caucus, including by Hoyer and his close associates. A speaker's written word cannot be taken lightly.

This is a no-win situation for Pelosi. If Murtha wins today, she will be accused of personal vindictiveness in derailing Hoyer, who is more popular in the caucus and better qualified for leadership. If Murtha loses, as is much more probable, she will be seen as bumbling her first attempt to lead the new Democratic majority. Pelosi could have avoided this dilemma by standing aside as Speaker-presumptive Newt Gingrich did when he voted for his ally Robert Walker as majority whip but did not ask members to oppose Tom DeLay.

Pelosi's mistake confirms longstanding, privately held Democratic apprehension about her abilities. Their concerns do not reflect the Republican indictment of her as a reflexive San Francisco liberal. Some of her most trenchant congressional critics are on the left wing of the party. These colleagues worry that her decision-making may be distorted by personal considerations.

Hoyer is the most accomplished Democratic legislator in the House, widely respected on both sides of the aisle. He, not Pelosi, would be preparing to be speaker had he not lost to her in a 2001 contest for minority whip, thanks to nearly complete support from her huge California delegation. That put Pelosi ahead of Hoyer on the leadership escalator. While Hoyer would win a secret poll of the Democratic caucus as more qualified, Democrats cannot turn aside the first female speaker.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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