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Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, and the new Democratic majority

By John Fairbanks

Posted December 1, 2006

Now that some of the dust has settled after Election 2006, it’s worth taking a little time to pick through the spin and counterspin that’s been going around in the continuous effort to plant in the public’s mind what this election really “meant.”

The election “meant” that a majority of the people who came to the polls on Nov. 7 had lost patience with scandal, corruption, incompetence, and arrogance in Washington. They were fed up with watching gas prices go up (except during the fall campaign) and school performance go down. They were frustrated with flatlining wages and sluggish job growth. Many were upset over our country’s immigration policies. And they were darned sick of watching this great nation wasting lives, fortunes, and honor in the catastrophe that is the war in Iraq.

But Nov. 7, like all elections, also “meant” somebody had done a lot of work in the trenches. Democrats, for the first time in recent memory, out-organized Republicans on the ground.

A good share of the credit for this goes to Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy.” Dean wanted Democrats to abandon the defensive mindset that had taken hold of the party leadership and led them to pick a select number of seats to contest. As the head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Dean led a broad offensive, putting resources into reviving state parties and local organizing, even in Red states where Republicans had comfortable majorities.

He caught hell from party insiders, particularly former Clintonisatas like Rahm Emmanuel, Congressman from Illinois and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Paul Begala, a political consultant and talking head. Emmanuel got into a well-publicized shouting match with Dean last August over where the DNC should put its money. Begala went on CNN last spring to say, “Yes, he [Dean] is in trouble, in that campaign managers, candidates, are really angry with him. He has raised $74 million and spent $64 million. He says it’s a long-term strategy. But what he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose. That’s not how you build a party. You win elections. That’s how you build a party.”

Post-election, Emmanuel and Dean have apparently reached a truce. Turns out Begala’s numbers were as wrong as his criticism, for which he later apologized.

Consider how deep the Democratic victories went. Two House seats in New Hampshire, which hasn’t happened in more than 80 years. In fact, New England now has exactly one Republican Congressman, Chris Shays of Connecticut. Dems picked up three seats in Indiana, one of the reddest states in the Union. Some deeply-entrenched Republicans, such as seven-term Congressman Richard Pombo of California, the point man for the effort to devastate our environmental protection laws, went down to defeat, while others were forced to expend resources they never thought they’d need to keep their seats. That’s called expanding the playing field.

Dems also made major gains in state legislatures and governorships across the country, erasing what had been a substantial Republican advantage (consider, for example, what this might mean in the next round of redistricting). In Kansas, for cryin’ out loud, Republicans are switching parties.
This didn’t happen because of Dean alone. But under his leadership, the DNC rebuilt party infrastructure outside the Beltway. That has won Dean the respect and cooperation of state party chairs across the country. Even Bill Clinton eventually pronounced himself a believer.

For now, the Dems have a big job ahead. They have a slim majority in the Senate, which means they can control committees, which in turn means they can control what bills get to the floor and, perhaps as importantly, which nominations get a vote, but they don’t have anywhere near the numbers needed to pass anything without Republican support.

The action, for now, is on the other side of the Capitol. Under House rules, the majority party runs the show, no ifs, ands, or buts. For that reason, and because she’s going to be two heartbeats from the presidency, Democrats should rally around Nancy Pelosi as their leader on the Hill.

Congressional Dems need to show the country that they can mind the store. I remember a story told by an old lefty writer about how, in his fiery youth, he was a member of the Merchant Marines and was haranguing his fellow sailors one day while they were making some lines fast. One older salt turned to him and said, “Son, when you can tie that knot faster and better than I just saw you, then you can tell me how to change the world.” Point well-taken. Dems will build the public trust they need to support a long-term agenda by showing they can put their own house in order and get back to passing legislation aimed at meeting peoples’ needs.

Pelosi also promised to run “the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history.” That’s going to need some work. For example, incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn have already drawn large crowds at expensive parties thrown for the benefit of lobbyists eager to get in with the new sheriffs. That’s business-as-usual. It leads to the corruption many voters found so distasteful, and it undercuts the entire reform effort Democrats were elected to support.

The new speaker is also going to have to put the leash on the “Blue Dogs,” a coalition of 40 or so conservative House members. If they stay loyal, Dems could make some real progress. But there’s already been a three-way dustup between the Blue Dogs, the Congressional Black Caucus, and Pelosi over naming a chair to the House Intelligence Committee.

Pelosi is hearing calls for investigations of the Bush administration. There is no question Congress must return to its oversight function of the executive branch, but Dems should move with cautionary dispatch. They don’t want investigations, and the inevitable partisan rancor that will come with them, becoming the running story for the next two years, overshadowing the work they need to do.

A great deal of damage has been inflicted on our nation over the past five and a half years. It won’t be repaired in the next two. But if Democrats can play hard at the ballot box and play fair with us in Washington, we’ll be off to a good start.

John Fairbanks is a former staffer in the U.S. Senate and House. He lives in Montpelier.