Salena Zito

Brown says that will make 2011 “a fascinating political year. Not only will it be the year we are likely to discover if the Republicans return to their small-government ways, owing to the pressure of the Tea Partiers, but it will also be the year when we discover how severely the Democrats' losses in 2010 cracked the party's unity on its 2008 progressive vision.”

On Wednesday, House members and the rest of the country watched Pelosi fall from being – by Brown’s ranking – the country’s second most powerful person to its fifth. (In order, those are the president, House speaker, Senate majority and minority leaders, and House minority leader; the vice president doesn’t make Brown’s top-five list.)

For two years before Obama's 2008 election, Pelosi fairly could be considered Washington’s top Democrat. Largely through her efforts, Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 and were well positioned to win the White House in 2008, regardless of their presidential nominee.

Even now, Brown says, “Pelosi is not one to count out of the game.”

She and her House caucus may make it difficult for Obama and Reid to tack to the ideological center and to position themselves for the 2012 election.

From the House gallery on Wednesday, an onlooker could see Speaker Boehner shaking hands with and even hugging political foes such as ethics-plagued Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., while House minority whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., smiled and shook hands with new and old Republican congressmen.

The fractures among Democrats played out in more subtle body language: Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, D-Fla., had no fake smile on her face and offered only tepid applause.

And Pelosi’s trembling hands were the perfect symbol of the shaky ground on which Democrats stand today, having never recovered from 2008’s primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The Band-Aid that has kept them together – power in all branches of government – was peeled off by 2010’s midterm election.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.