Hoyer victory not a sign of moderation

Todd Gillman has a column in yesterday's Dallas Morning News that I disagree with in regards to congressional leadership elections.

The Hastert doctrine is out. The Republican speaker famously catered to the "majority of the majority." In the Pelosi House, centrists in both parties may end up calling the shots.

Democrats faced down the new speaker and picked Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland as majority leader even after Nancy Pelosi backed his rival to the relief of many Texas Democrats and to Blue Dogs, the fiscally conservative, pro-gun Democrats whose ranks swelled in the midterm elections.

The Blue Dogs and a similarly minded centrist group that calls itself the New Democrats have been exchanging feelers with what's left of the moderate Republicans, who lost many members in tough New England races.

Gillman's thesis is thus: Hoyer beat Murtha, therefore centrism will occur under Nancy Pelosi's reign as Speaker.

Three major problems with that thesis:

1. Congressional leadership elections aren't about ideology. While ideology may underpin members' decisions on who to vote for, it is much less important than Gillman portrays. Congressional leadership elections are about politics, particularly internal politics. A book could be probably be written on this subject (and should be!), but congressional leadership elections are more about personal alliances, communicating for the party, raising money, listening to the backbenchers, etc. Surely Gillman knows this, yet the way he framed the article makes it sound like he thinks congressional leadership elections are mostly about ideology.

2. Hoyer is the more liberal candidate. Hoyer's voting record is not that different from Pelosi's. In fact, in the 2002 minority whip election [at the time, Dick Gephardt was Minority Leader, and former whip David Bonior had launched a quixotic bid to be governor of Michigan, so the Minority Whip spot was open], Hoyer went to great pains to point out how similar their voting records were. While Hoyer is perceived [fairly, in my opinion] as less liberal than Pelosi, he's got a fairly standard-issue liberal voting record.

By contrast, Murtha has been pro-life and pro-gun. A quick check of lifetime voting records on the ADA's website ranks Hoyer as 83 and Murtha as 56. [I think the numbers might be out of date, but that's not my fault, and both have been in Congress so long that their scores should be stabilized.] That makes Hoyer quite a bit more liberal.

3. Speaker Pelosi sets the agenda. Even if Hoyer were more moderate (he's not; see point 2), his influence over the initial agenda will probably be relatively little. Pelosi will drive the agenda for now, unless she's a weaker leader than she is perceived. This is, after all, the time when her power is the strongest.

Gillman's columns are frequently insightful, but this one is not. The best argument for his position is that Hoyer will owe the Blue Dogs. There are a number of problems with that argument, however, including point 3 above, as well as the fact that Hoyer's margin of victory was relatively large. [It occurs to me also that Gillman thinks that Pelosi will have to moderate because so many of the new members are to the right of the Democratic Caucus. I think that argument is also overblown, and Gillman didn't make it in this article anyway.]

Perhaps Gillman will ultimately be right, and centrism will reign in the House under Nancy Pelosi. I doubt it, though I am hopeful. Either way, the results of the House Majority Leader election do not provide much indication.

Posted by Evan @ 11/20/06 01:49 PM


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Evan --

Much more than whether Hoyer or Murtha won the position of majority leader, what matters is how the Democrats (and the White House) want to play the game the next two years. If Bush decides it is in his interest to make the Ds look bad so that Republicans can take back the House and/or Senate in 08, then the politics of the next two years will be polarized. But why would Bush want to do that? The permanent Republican majority is Karl Rove's agenda, not Bush's. Bush's agenda ought to be legacy oriented. That's all he has left. Make the tax cuts permanent, establish a consensus on Iraq, and do whatever else he can accomplish. The Democrats agenda ought to be, above all, to show the country that they can govern so that they can be reelected in 08. This requires getting along with Bush. If they are constantly embroiled in fights over executive privilege, they will look petty and undercut their own legitimacy. It seems to me it is in the interests of the Democratic majority and the White House to get along, and that is against the interests of the Republican minority.

Posted by pb @ 11/20/06 03:43 PM

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