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More on House Democrats — After the Flak

Over the years, I have grown to expect tough feedback from this column — i.e., people yelling at me. I long ago decided that if I were going to write every week in Roll Call, with its influential audience, I would have to write with real honesty, without fear or favor, and take the flak that comes with it.[IMGCAP(1)]

Along the way, I have been flayed in public and private by a whole lot of powerful Members and staff. When the Democrats were in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to drive House Majority Whip David Bonior (Mich.) to distraction, and on many occasions I ticked off Speaker Tom Foley (Wash.) and Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.).

Of late, I have ticked off Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and powerhouse Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio), to name a few. OK, more than a few.

Given all this, I knew that writing a piece on minority leadership would provoke some negative reaction, including from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). When I saw the headline (which I do not write) “Nancy Pelosi’s Style As Leader: Admirable But Doomed?” I knew the reaction would be very negative.

But when I got calls the morning after my piece appeared two weeks ago suggesting that the black and Hispanic caucuses had reacted volcanically, I was frankly dumbfounded. I got some calls from Members and staff in the days that followed that reinforced the sense of deep anger out there. So it was not a surprise to find two long letters attacking me in Monday’s Roll Call. But it was still a shock to see what Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) wrote. Then came the third punch, a letter sent by Reps. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), in their official capacities as chairmen of the black and Hispanic caucuses, suggesting I was sending a “sinister message” — apparently a racist one. It demands a response.

First, some data. In the most recent Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Americans say they believe the Democratic Party is too weak on national security. And asked by the Center for American Progress which party they trusted to do a better job on various issues, respondents answered the following:

• Managing American national security policy: Democrats 34 percent, Republicans 50 percent.

• Maintaining a strong military: Democrats 24 percent, Republicans 66 percent.

• Modernizing the military to meet 21st century national security challenges: Democrats 30 percent, Republicans 58 percent.

• Breaking up and destroying the al Qaeda network: Democrats 23 percent, Republicans 60 percent.

• Protecting the U.S. homeland: Democrats 30 percent, Republicans 50 percent.

Keep in mind that these are figures from the liberal/progressive Center for American Progress. Could it be any clearer that the Democratic Party has a problem — a big problem — with its image on national security issues at a time when these issues are dominant? Could it be any clearer that if these are the numbers for the nation as a whole, then the numbers are much worse for Democrats in the South, the Southwest and the Midwest, where Democrats absolutely must gain seats if they are ever to retake the majority?

It was with these numbers in mind that I suggested that it was not especially wise, having already changed ideological direction at the top of the Homeland Security Committee, to push aside a Democrat who counters that image on the House Intelligence Committee. That suggestion, made in two paragraphs out of 16 in the June 29 piece, provoked the outraged reaction that led to Monday’s two letters.

Let me repeat the key parts of those paragraphs: “With the passage of the 9/11 commission’s reforms, the old term limits on service on the Intelligence Committee are gone. But it appears that Pelosi is intent on replacing [Rep. Jane] Harman [D-Calif.] as ranking member in the next Congress, probably with a liberal who will take a very different stand on these issues. This would follow the replacement, upon his departure from Congress, of moderate Jim Turner (D-Texas) by liberal Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) as ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, along with a near-complete turnover of the panel’s minority staff. I don’t want to knock Thompson, a very capable Member. But if anything, the smart move for a Minority Leader now is to bulk up the party’s national security portfolio with Democrats who can reassure voters, especially those in heartland districts.”

That’s it. Now, here is what Clyburn wrote Roll Call about the passage on Thompson: “Ornstein took cheap shots to higher heights and low blows to deeper depths than I have ever seen on your opinion pages.” Imagine what he would have written if I just said Thompson was a “capable” Member, not a “very capable” one. In fact, Pelosi followed the regular order in replacing Turner with Thompson, as she should have. Having done so, however, it should make her even more sensitive to ensuring that the Democratic Party’s more centrist voices in national security are showcased and heard. Those centrist voices on national security, by the way, include such black and Hispanic lawmakers as Artur Davis (Ala.), David Scott (Ga.), Sanford Bishop (Ga.), Harold Ford (Tenn.) and Silvestre Reyes (Texas).

As for Hastings, to whom I did not refer but who is next in line to be ranking member on Intelligence (though the choice is at the discretion of the leader, not purely on seniority), I had no intention of disparaging him or anybody else on the committee. I find Hastings to be knowledgeable on intelligence issues, one of the most engaging lawmakers I know, and as diligent as anybody at traveling to learn about the world. For him to suggest that my analysis has anything to do with race is — at best — just plain silly. For Watt and Napolitano to say it more directly and impugn my motives as sinister is frankly offensive and beneath them.

Hastings is, as he himself notes, a liberal. Not that there is anything wrong with that — or with many liberal positions on foreign and national security policy. After all, there is plenty wrong with many conservative and neo-conservative positions on national security. Frankly, if I didn’t feel the need to write this column this week, I would have written one citing the London bombings that ripped the majority on its failure to take homeland security concerns seriously enough — a position close to that of Thompson, who is indeed very capable and doing a fine job.

I did not suggest he should be bounced or never should have been chosen — only that having a liberal at the helm on this committee should make the party, and its leader, more sensitive to having different ideological voices at the helm on other national security fronts, since the public face of the party, set primarily by (white) figures in presidential politics, does not measure up for enough voters.

The House, regrettably, has not taken the advice of the 9/11 commission and removed term limits on membership and leadership on the Intelligence Committee. But for Democrats to retain term limits on leaders of the Intelligence Committee to bounce a capable lawmaker — at a time when the commission and every major thinker about Congress has strongly endorsed the elimination of those term limits on the Intelligence Committee, and when Democrats have derided the Republicans for enacting term limits on committee chairmen — is not sensible in my view. At a time when majorities of Americans believe Republicans are far better suited to handle national security and homeland security than Democrats are, it makes sense for Democrats to put forward leaders who counter that perception. That has nothing to do with the competence, experience, acumen or skin color of Hastings, Thompson or anybody else.

Clyburn also suggests I sharply disparage Pelosi. Au contraire; at least the “admirable” adjective in the column title was accurate. The broader theme in the article was minority leadership in historical perspective, and about the challenges facing Pelosi.

It is never easy being a Minority Leader, especially in the House and particularly when facing an overreaching, obtuse and insensitive majority that tries on a regular basis to craft its majorities with Republicans alone — accepting Democratic votes, but rarely allowing any Democratic input.

The only basic model that can work in these circumstances, I argued, is the Newt Gingrich model — the one he used with great impact in 1993-94, when Democrats held all the reins of power and Republicans denied them, in key situation after key situation, the Republican votes they needed to pass an economic package, a crime bill and a health reform measure.

The onus was on the Democrats — either to find all the votes they needed on the Democratic side (as they did on the Clinton economic package, but only after months of turmoil, agony and lost political momentum) or to maintain enough unity to get key rules and bills through (as they failed to do on the crime bill, turning an eventual if delayed victory into what looked like a searing setback). When President Bill Clinton was desperate for a deal on health reform after his plan faltered, Republicans responded by killing any health reform in its cradle, leading to a huge public embarrassment for the party in power.

Put simply, Republican unity in the minority was a key weapon against the majority and led inexorably to the stunning GOP gains in 1994. Those gains, resulting in the first Republican majority in 40 years, came without any GOP alternative plan on health care. Voters didn’t ask about the minority’s plan — they reacted to the failure of the majority to get things done when they were in charge.

When I wrote about the inability of Democrats to find that perfect unity on the Medicare prescription drug bill, I was not criticizing Pelosi but rather her errant colleagues who provided the votes that enabled the GOP to squeeze the bill through. Passage would not have been possible at all if it were not for the Democrats who supported it, and who along the way reaffirmed the GOP strategy of legislating using its own caucus alone.

Pelosi was absolutely right to be furious with them, to make key votes clear party loyalty votes, and to use the resources at her disposal to make sure that Members understood the consequences of defying the party on those key votes. And Pelosi is absolutely the right kind of leader at this time for the Democratic Party in the House. Of course, her own approach is not identical to that of Gingrich. But the idea — of shaping a minority party to act as a minority party has to in the face of a majority steamroller — is Gingrich’s, and it is the right one for Democrats now. And Pelosi is the right leader for that role.

But if you are going to keep 200-plus Members together and united — and if you are going to find ways to increase the number to make it more than 218 — you have to pick and choose your battles. That larger point — and its reference to bankruptcy and national security — remains appropriate for today’s House Democrats, and for their leader.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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