By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, November 10, 2010;
A lot of Democrats deserve a share of the blame for the shellacking they took last week, beginning with a president who shied away from defending his achievements. Nancy Pelosi, however, should not be high on that list.
Consider, for starters, the No. 1 cause of the Democrats' defeat: the economy. The Democrats, one prominent critique holds, didn't do enough to reduce unemployment and, instead, spent eons working on bills - however commendable they may have been - that weren't directed at ending the recession.
But Pelosi and her lieutenants in the House consistently argued for a bigger stimulus and passed several jobs bills that never made it through the Senate. As the incoming Obama administration debated the size of the stimulus, Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and one of Pelosi's oldest allies, argued that this recession was far more serious than a cyclical downturn and proposed a $1.4 trillion stimulus package to combat it. "The administration got nervous and suggested it should not break a trillion because of the symbolic value of the number," Obey told me on Monday. "My argument was that the situation was so serious you needed that symbolic value to convince the public just how serious the downturn really was."
The administration, as we know, scaled down the stimulus, and it was further reduced to win the votes of Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in the Senate. Most economists now believe that the stimulus kept unemployment from rising to 12 percent, but it clearly wasn't large enough to reduce joblessness below the stubborn rate of 9.5 percent.
Undaunted, Pelosi kept returning to job-creating bills. In the Senate, where cloture rules, Republican intransigence and the Democrats' futile search for bipartisan support extended the consideration of health-care reform for more than half a year, the question of persistent unemployment didn't come to the floor. In the House, it did repeatedly. "In November of last year," California Democrat George Miller, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee and Pelosi's closest ally in the House, told me this week, "we were looking at a winding down of stimulus spending, and we tried to tell the administration we'd be getting bad news on the economy around about August." Miller proposed a second stimulus of roughly $135 billion, but with the Senate still debating health care, it was repeatedly deferred until mid-2010, by which time it had been winnowed to just $10 billion.
The House passed other, separate job-creating bills that went nowhere in the Senate, including tax credits for retrofitting homes and the extension of a program of low-interest bonds to build schools and roads. Whatever Pelosi's sins may be, they don't include fiddling while the economy burned. As the most effective speaker in modern American history, she not only led the House to enact the landmark legislation on the to-do list of her party and president - health-care reform, financial reform, a cap-and-trade bill to reduce global warming - but also returned repeatedly to measures that would help the economy. Unlike the Senate, the House, under Pelosi, could walk and chew gum at the same time.
Were there Blue Dogs whom she forced to vote for measures that went on to doom them electorally? Actually, her practice was to let those members vote their districts - that is, oppose controversial bills - once majority support was assured. Is she out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans? On several issues over her career, she's been the leading tribune for causes that turned out to be not only right but popular. We should remember that Pelosi, opposing then-Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, led the opposition to the resolution authorizing the Bush administration to go to war in Iraq and that her long-standing concern for Chinese human rights led her to oppose normalizing trade with China.
You can argue, of course, that all this and a couple of bucks entitle her to a ride on the D.C. Metro. Neither she nor Harry Reid are capable public speakers, but the great Democratic mystery is whatever happened to Barack Obama, who once was supremely capable of arguing the case for fundamental, complex change. She is - Oh, the Horror - from San Francisco. Yet she remains the Democrat most capable of forging a unified opposition to Republican attempts to undercut key programs such as Social Security and Medicaid, and her record demonstrates that she is the Democrats' most effective fighter for the interests of ordinary Americans. That's not the perception, alas, but it's the reality - which Democrats ignore at their peril.