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The House Democrats: Do they need a confrontational leader?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted November 11, 2002

This week the Democrats in the House will determine their future by choosing a new leader to replace Dick Gephardt. In doing so, they well may also determine the future of the Democrat Party in general.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi
Pelosi

The leading candidate is Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. Her only opponent until Friday had been Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who has been Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Since Republicans defied history and, instead of getting their clocks cleaned (even Ronald Reagan lost 26 seats in the House in 1982), actually gained four, maybe five, maybe six seats in the House, Democrats didn't seem to be enthusiastic about electing the man who presided over their defeat. Frost says Rep. Pelosi has the votes needed to win. Rep. Pelosi went so far as to declare the race for the minority leader's post to be "over."

But it appears to me that Ms. Pelosi may not be as strong as she thinks she is. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., a young, articulate, and moderate from Tennessee, entered the race last Friday. It reminds me of the situation in the Senate when Sen. Hugh Scott (R-Pa.) retired in 1976. The long time party whip, Sen. Bob Griffin (R-Mich.) was expected to succeed him. He assured everyone he had the votes. On the actual day of the vote, Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) took what he called "a riverboat gamble" and got a Senator to nominate him and a couple of Senators to second the nomination. When the votes were counted, Baker prevailed by a couple of votes.

Rep. Harold Ford
Ford

Baker said later he just sensed that Senators were uncomfortable with the rather stoic and academic Griffin and wanted a folksy leader who could amuse the media. In the end, I thought Baker was a terrible leader. He really didn't want to sell Reagan's ideas to the Congress. He remained Minority Leader until 1980, then led the Republicans as Majority Leader until 1984.

A very bitter Griffin said after the vote that several Senators who had pledged to vote for him just plain lied. Perhaps they did. Or perhaps Griffin heard what he wanted to hear when he asked for their votes.

I just sense that Rep. Ford would not have gotten into the race if he were convinced that Pelosi is what the Democrats want for their future. She is a San Francisco liberal. She is a firebrand. She is mired in 1960's style politics.

The House Democratic leader receives a lot of media attention. He or she will be on television nearly every day when Congress is in session. Should Pelosi win and should Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) give in to pressure to challenge Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle for the post of minority leader, (which is unlikely) then the Democrats would have their team for the future, and a very liberal one. It will contrast starkly with the Bush team in the Congress, which will include Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and, in the House, Speaker Denny Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

I believe Ford is looking at the exit polls, which clearly indicated that voters were finished with divided government and gridlock. They wanted the bickering to stop in Washington. Ford can work with Republicans. He has a pleasant, non-threatening demeanor. With Rep. Steny Hoyer (R-Md.), another moderate liberal, as Minority Whip, the party would not have a confrontational image.

The balance of power may be the new House Members who defeated Republicans or took open seats. They know the mood of the country very well since they just came through a tough election. Many didn't win by much. Three new Democrats are actually pro-life. They may well determine that their future should be represented by the likes of Harold Ford rather than the confrontational Nancy Pelosi.

We'll know a great deal about the direction the Democratic Party is taking when the winner of that contest is announced.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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