11.12.10

Pelosi Must Go

Instead of leading House Democrats for another two years, John Avlon says the outgoing Speaker should step down for good to avoid harming Democrats—and Obama's reelection—any further.

Instead of leading House Democrats for another two years, John Avlon says the outgoing Speaker should step down for good to avoid harming them—and Obama’s reelection—any further.

Madame Speaker—step away from the party leadership, before you hurt anyone else.

Nancy Pelosi’s surprise decision to stay on as party leader serves no one but herself. And the only people cheering are Republicans.

They’ve said as much—the “Fire Pelosi” sign outside GOP headquarters in D.C. has been changed to read “Hire Pelosi.” Now, some of her members are starting to speak out, with Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley bluntly telling the Associated Press that Pelosi is “politically toxic”. He’s right: the biggest gift Democrats can give the GOP would be to keep the profoundly unpopular Pelosi in power as Obama aims toward 2012.

Pelosi’s defenders—and they are legion among what Robert Gibbs infamously and accurately called “the professional left”—point out that she has been an effective House leader, herding Democratic cats and passing a steady stream of legislation. If it’s any consolation to her family and/or supporters, Pelosi’s place in history is secure. She will be remembered as the first female Speaker of the House—and the person who presided over an epic election repudiation.

It’s time to look at Pelosi without tears. She was always an awkward choice to be party leader because she embodies the elite “San Francisco Democrat” stereotype that Republicans have been successfully running against for more than a generation.

Even in the wake of the triumphant 2006 Democratic sweep of Congress, the Gallup poll found that only 34 percent of independent voters, and 39 percent of centrists had a positive impression of Pelosi—and this under-water number was a high point.

Pelosi’s statement announcing her decision to stay on was essentially defensive in nature, focused on securing past gains rather than presenting any positive vision for climbing back toward the majority.

In August of 2008—at the height of Obama-mania—Pelosi sold just 2,737 copies of her book Know Your Power in its first week of release (by comparison, George W. Bush sold 220,000 books in its first day). Upon achieving unified control of Washington that fall, Pelosi led congressional Democrats to misinterpret the 2008 elections as an ideological mandate and proceeded to over-reach, provoking this year’s broad backlash.

Before the midterms, Pelosi’s favorability among independent voters was down to 21 percent. Rasmussen measured Pelosi’s polarization by finding that only 16 percent of Americans have a “very favorable” rating of her while 52 percent have a “very unfavorably rating”—she is broadly and deeply unpopular, with a narrow base of support.

Pelosi was a national negative factor in this year’s campaign—the GOP ran an astounding 161,203 ads attacking her in 2010, costing an estimated $65 million, according to a new study commissioned by CNN. This isn’t a sign that Republicans are “scared” of Nancy Pelosi, as some might try to spin—it’s evidence that the GOP wants to run against her. It’s worth considering that the most anti-Pelosi ads ran in the purple state of Pennsylvania, where five House Democrats went down to defeat. She has a demonstrated capacity to alienate the swing voters who decide elections.

All this is suicide for a party that wants to regain the majority and help re-elect its president.

But Pelosi’s statement announcing her decision to stay on was essentially defensive in nature, focused on securing past gains rather than presenting any positive vision for climbing back toward the majority.

Her knee-capping of the bipartisan deficit commission’s recommendations as “simply unacceptable” was just the latest sign of uninspired leadership with a unique ability to alienate the center. Her statement was a small masterpiece of hackishness and cynicism, affirming the importance of doing “what is right for our children and grandchildren's economic security as well as for our nation's fiscal security” and then systematically undercutting any serious effort to do just that.

Pelosi’s decision to stay on as party leader has also spurred an unfortunate contest between her two top deputies, Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn, to see who will serve as Party Whip. This fight promises to further divide her already demoralized party along the deep fault lines that exist between what’s left of the embattled Blue Dog centrists and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Luckily, there is an obvious and graceful way out of this mess—Nancy Pelosi should step down for the good of her party and her country. She has earned a comfortable retirement and can enjoy it in good conscience.

Her departure would be in keeping with precedent—when a party loses the majority, its leader traditionally steps down. Newt Gingrich left congress after simply losing more seats than expected in 1998. The only exceptions to this general rule were the back and forth House control that accompanied the Truman and Eisenhower years, and Nancy Pelosi ain’t no Sam Rayburn, for better or worse.

If Pelosi stays on, it will satisfy her understandable desire to write a better final chapter of her political life—but it could end up hurting Barack Obama further by depriving him of the clear contrast he needs with the Republican’s control of congress. The image of Nancy Pelosi waiting in the wings will not inspire independent voters to think better of Democrats come 2012. She has become a symbol of the ideological arrogance and legislative over-reach that caused independents to vote for the checks and balances of divided government this fall. With a lame duck session ahead that is likely to be dominated by images of Charles Rangel and Maxine Waters’ ethics trials, Democrats desperately need to turn the page and put forward a new face to the nation. That’s why its time for Pelosi to go.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.