Mr. Cool And the Brawlers

By David Ignatius
Sunday, August 24, 2008

As the Democrats assemble in Denver, there's an odd dissonance to the party. The star of the show is "Mr. Cool," Barack Obama, the ultra-charismatic senator who landed on the national stage as if from outer space -- seemingly untouched by the usual racial and political scars -- promising a new era of bipartisanship and national healing.

But the supporting cast is a collection of red-hot politicians I've come to think of as the Get-Even Gang -- led by the party's congressional leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. They made their names clawing and battling against Karl Rove's Republicans, and they are partisan politicians to the bone.

The partisanship of the congressional leadership has been a virtue for Democrats, up to a point. By being as tough and unyielding as their GOP rivals, they won back control of Congress. But they haven't done much with their majorities these past two years, beyond bashing President Bush.

Which raises a question to ponder as you watch the convention this week: Will Mr. Cool be a strong enough leader to transform the Democratic-controlled Congress from a reflexive role into a force for change? Can the Get-Even Gang become the Get-Ahead Gang? Or will Obama remain the aloof, judicious ex-professor who gives a great speech but leaves the dirty work of governing to Pelosi and Reid?

By selecting Joe Biden as his running mate, Obama has chosen a red-hot partner of his own. But there is a significant difference between Biden and the Pelosi-Reid style of congressional leadership. Biden came to the Senate before the super-partisan era began, back when it was actually fun. He's always been a get-along guy, sometimes to a fault.

As an extra-credit assignment before this week's convention, I've been reading the books recently published by congressional leaders. And I must say, these are not works that rank with the political novels of Anthony Trollope. The titles -- Pelosi's "Know Your Power" and Reid's "The Good Fight" -- sound almost pugilistic. They reveal the mind-set that has made these leaders such effective partisan brawlers.

Pelosi and Reid are each throwbacks to the muscular Democratic Party of several generations ago. It's telling that both grew up in homes that celebrated the Democratic godfather -- Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reid's mother displayed in their little home in Searchlight, Nev., an embroidered pillowcase with a quote attributed to FDR, "We can. We will. We must." Pelosi's father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., led the Democratic machine in Baltimore, serving eight years in Congress and 12 as mayor. When constituents came to ask for favors, they would walk past a large portrait of FDR.

These old-fashioned Democrats don't just oppose Republicans; they actively dislike them. Pelosi describes how, as a young woman, she refused to rent a house in San Francisco because the owner was serving in the Nixon administration. Reid is almost contemptuous in voicing his antipathy toward George W. Bush, who he says "will rank among the worst presidents -- if not the worst -- in the history of our country."

Pelosi and Reid rose to leadership positions during the hyper-partisan years of Republican control of Congress, and it shows. They are the people who refused to be Swift-boated, DeLay-ed or otherwise crushed by the Republican attack machine. They attacked back and were as vengeful as the Republicans.

Pelosi describes with relish her strategy for trouncing Bush's plan to privatize Social Security -- which was to blast it mercilessly, without offering an alternative. The implicit message is that negotiation and compromise are for losers. The reality that Social Security is facing bankruptcy seems not to interest either Pelosi or Reid. A Democratic White House couldn't look to Pelosi and Reid for ideas.

Which brings us back to Mr. Cool. He's assuming leadership of a party that was badly bruised during the era of Republican dominance but learned to fight back. Obama (unlike Reid and Pelosi) is not someone you'd want at your side in a bar fight. But then, FDR and JFK weren't exactly barroom brawlers, either. They were leaders, which is different.

It's a virtue for Obama that he seems to be above the fray -- so long as he shows the toughness and hands-on leadership to steer his party and the country out of what has been a dark, partisan period into something better and brighter.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company