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10.22.10

The Dems' Cruella de Vil

If Democrats lose the House in November, Republicans will delight in shutting up Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Kirsten Powers on the legacy of the most powerful woman in Congress.

“Here’s a story about a lady named Nancy/A ruthless politician/But dressed very fancy.”

This little ditty from former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee pretty well sums up the GOP campaign strategy to vilify one of the most powerful women in U.S. government history.

Titled “Fancy Nancy,” Huckabee’s political nursery rhyme was followed by a “Fire Nancy” bus tour, sponsored by the Republican National Committee, and GOP campaign ads portraying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not only as the Wicked Witch of the West but also as that sinister puppy killer, Cruella de Vil. This cycle, she is the featured villain in GOP attack ads in almost 50 congressional districts—and the ads seem to be working. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Pelosi has whopping 50 percent disapproval rating ( 29 percent approve).

Juvenile attacks aside; the GOP has stayed clear of really questioning Pelosi’s competence, and for good reason. Nancy Pelosi will without a doubt be remembered as one of the most effective and powerful Speakers in U.S. history.

Her power has flowed from an unusually adept organizational ability combined with prodigious fundraising for her members. She presided over Democratic victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections. And contrary to the far-left ideologues caricature of her, she has worked well with both moderate and conservative Democrats. In fact, she graciously green-lighted members to distance themselves from her in their reelection fight.

Juvenile attacks aside; the GOP has stayed clear of really questioning Pelosi’s competence, and for good reason.

Substantively, she has overseen one of the most productive Congresses in history to include the passage of an economic stimulus package, a massive health care overhaul and financial reform. American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein has likened this Congress to the Great Society Congress of 1965-66.

Yet, many are pointing to Pelosi’s reign as a primary reason the Dems might lose the House in a few weeks.

This is pure scapegoating.

If the Congressional agenda is a problem for the Democrats, it’s a problem that has flowed straight from the White House.

As the Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston told me: Any “mistakes were mistakes of strategy and tactics that went well beyond her. She was trying her best to enact into law the agenda on which the president campaigned.”

Election Oracle: Midterm PredictionsPelosi held a very diverse caucus together under incredibly difficult circumstances. The president was frequently disengaged publicly, even on his signature health care plan. And the Senate didn’t always hold up its end of the bargain.

According to University of Oklahoma political scientist Ronald Peters, who co-wrote “Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics,” she understood that moving an activist agenda was going to put some of her members at risk and could also jeopardize her Speakership. “Obama said ‘I’d rather be a [really good] one-term President.’ And Pelosi felt the same way,” about getting health care done, Peters told me.

Displaying her trademark spirit, Pelosi took a calculated risk, and will likely pay a high price in just a few weeks.

Under normal circumstances, the President’s party typically loses seats during the first midterm elections. This year, factor in the country’s economic woes and record-high unemployment, and it seems unavoidable that the Dems are about to get a shellacking, especially since the White House never provided a strong narrative as to why Americans should hold on to the Democrats.

Even if the Democrats somehow maintain their majority, Democratic strategist James Carville said earlier this week that he could see Pelosi losing leadership post. Ironically, if Dems lose, Pelosi is in a stronger position to retain her power since the Democratic caucus would be weighted more heavily with liberal Pelosi loyalists. Many of the more conservative members, who have pledged to oppose her as Speaker, are the ones in danger of not returning to Congress.

Still, Pelosi could decide to leave on her own.

As Peters recalls, when Rahm Emanuel left the House for the White House, Pelosi told him, in a reference to Bill Clinton’s post-1994 tactic: “‘You guys are never going to triangulate me.’ She hates that term.”

But guess what’s about to happen.

While Pelosi was perfectly cast to for the period she served as the Speaker, she may decide in the coming climate that it’s time to go.

Should she choose to give up the Speakership, she’ll leave big pumps to fill.

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.