Alex Brandon / AP
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) just announced, via Twitter, that she will run for minority leader. This is a controversial choice on her part. Typically, when the majority gets "shellacked," to use President Obama's words, the party leader steps aside. Even before Tuesday's results came in, Pelosi had been proven to be a political liability for vulnerable Democrats. She was frequently the subject of Republican attack ads this year and was even sometimes explicitly mentioned by Democrats as the embodiment of the Washington liberalism that they sought to distance themselves from. A couple of Democratic congressional candidates—Roy Herron of Tennessee and Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama—said in the waning days of the campaign that they would not support Pelosi for speaker if they won. They lost anyway.
For the past few days, Pelosi has been ruminating on whether she should try to retain her leadership role and has reportedly been calling around to her caucus asking whether she has their support. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT), co-chair of the House Blue Dog caucus, which represents conservative Democrats, has called for Pelosi to step down from the leadership, because "we got whupped."
National Journal expressed the conventional wisdom, characterizing Pelosi's attempts to figure out whether she has enough support to run for leader as a "lead trial balloon" and adding, "it is very hard to see how Pelosi gathers enough support to stay in the leadership."
If true, that's too bad for Democrats—Pelosi would be perfect as minority leader. Matheson has it precisely backward when he reasons that the Democrats must elect a moderate after suffering a loss. You govern from the center, to look effective and protect vulnerable incumbents, but you oppose with partisanship, to make the majority look ineffective and drive down their approval ratings. It may be possible that a moderate speaker would have helped Democrats hold more seats, but now that they are in the minority, they need a leader who will attack the majority and inspire supporters in 2012. Pelosi is suited for that job.
As minority leader, Newt Gingrich earned a reputation for launching blistering attacks on Democrats, often designed to embarrass them by taking cheap shots over issues of procedure and ethics. It worked: he led the 1994 revolution that gave Republicans a congressional majority. The current Republican House leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, led his party in a strategy of complete rejectionism and opposition. It's likely that Republicans helped drive up unemployment by refusing to support enough aid to the states to prevent public-sector layoffs that conveniently hit just before the elections. It worked: the GOP gained 65 seats. Over in the Senate, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has led his caucus in unified opposition to even popular measures such as repealing "don't ask, don't tell," which helped the party gain six seats this week. Gingrich, Boehner, and McConnell are all just as unpopular with liberals as Pelosi is with conservatives. That's because they are good at their jobs, and so is she.
Reaching across the aisle to seek compromise makes sense when you are in the majority. The argument that Pelosi did not do that enough may have some legitimacy. But the part of her job that most factors into her potential performance as minority leader is how she held her caucus together. On that metric, she was hugely successful.
As Matthew Yglesias writes, "She always kept her values front and center." She got a whole host of bills through Congress that Harry Reid could not get passed in the Senate, including the politically challenging but enormously important effort to address climate change. And both houses passed a number of noteworthy pieces of liberal legislation, from the Fair Pay Act to financial regulation, health-care reform, and student-loan reform. Part of what makes the Blue Dogs' complaints about Pelosi so suspicious is that they presume the entire point of being in Congress is to get reelected to Congress. Considering that Congress is largely populated by rich lawyers who will go back to being rich lawyers if they lose, this seems to miss the point of running for Congress in the first place: ostensibly to enact your agenda and stop your opponent's. If Democrats view their role as actually accomplishing their policy goals, then a strong, partisan leader is undoubtedly what they would want, especially when in the minority.