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The Woman in the Middle

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) says she takes seriously the threat against her from the Democratic Party's liberal base.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) says she takes seriously the threat against her from the Democratic Party's liberal base. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Democratic majority was only three weeks old, but by Jan. 26, the grass-roots and Net-roots activists of the party's left wing had already settled on their new enemy: Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), the outspoken chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.

Progressive blogs -- including two new ones, Ellen Tauscher Weekly and Dump Ellen Tauscher -- were bashing her as a traitor to her party. A new liberal political action committee had just named her its "Worst Offender." And in Tauscher's East Bay district office that day in January, eight MoveOn.org activists were accusing her of helping President Bush send more troops to Iraq.

Helping? Jennifer Barton, the lawmaker's district director, played them a DVD of Tauscher blasting the increase as an awful idea in a floor speech eight days earlier.

"The words are fine and good, but we are looking for leadership," scoffed Susan Schaller, one of the activists.

Leadership? Barton showed them the eight golden shovels Tauscher had received for bringing transportation projects to her suburban district, along with numerous awards she had won for her work protecting children, wetlands, affordable housing and abortion rights.

"That's fine and good," Schaller repeated, "but this is about Iraq."

The anti-Tauscher backlash illustrates how the Democratic takeover has energized and emboldened the party's liberal base, ratcheting up the pressure on the party's moderates. That pressure is also reaching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a San Francisco liberal who recognizes that moderate voters helped sweep Democrats into the majority. Pelosi has clashed with Tauscher in the past, but she's now eager to hold together her diverse caucus and to avoid the mistakes of GOP leaders who routinely ignored their moderates.

So far, Pelosi and her leadership team seem determined to protect Tauscher and her 60 New Democrats -- up from 47 before the election. In fact, the day after Working for Us, the new progressive political action committee, targeted Tauscher, Pelosi sought her out at a caucus meeting and assured her: "I'm not going to let this happen." House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) spent 20 minutes complaining to Working for Us founder Steve Rosenthal, who swiftly removed the hit list of "Worst Offenders" from the group's Web site.

Said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly: "We want to protect our incumbents. That's what we're about."

Democratic leaders want their activists to focus on beating Republicans. But the grass roots and Net roots believe the political tide is shifting their way, and they can provide the money, ground troops and buzz to challenge Democratic incumbents they don't like. MoveOn.org had two Bay Area chapters before the election; now it has 15, and they could all go to work against Tauscher in a primary. "Absolutely, we could take her out," said Markos Moulitsas Zúniga -- better known as Kos -- the Bay Area blogger behind the influential Daily Kos site.

Tauscher was reelected with 68 percent of the vote, but she said she takes this threat seriously; she has already used it in fundraising appeals. And though she has always highlighted her independence -- shortly before the election, she warned Democrats not to "go off the left cliff" -- she's now emphasizing her party loyalty.

She was once the only California Democrat to oppose Pelosi's campaign for leadership, but she now marvels that the speaker's performance has been "absolutely perfect -- and she looks so beautiful doing it!" Tauscher's Web site no longer features photos of her with Bush or Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), who lost a Democratic primary of his own last year but won reelection as an independent.


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