What Pelosi Has Wrought

Here’s one last take from Steve Kornacki on the upcoming, high-stakes House leadership vote:

Earlier this week, I wrote that Nancy Pelosi would suffer no real damage from today’s vote for House Majority Leader.

That was then.

The House 230-some odd Democrats will convene in the Cannon Building this morning to choose between Steny Hoyer, the current second-ranking House Democrat and Pelosi’s longtime foe, and John Murtha, who has the incoming Speaker’s support.

Just a few days ago, this seemed like a simple little exercise. Hoyer would score a lay-up of a victory while Pelosi, recognizing the futility of the situation, would provide a nominal endorsement to her friend Murtha without lending any real muscle to his cause. In other words, she’d refrain from making Hoyer’s – and the Democratic caucus’s – life too difficult.

Like I said, that was then.

Since Tuesday, Pelosi – rather amazingly – has kicked it into overdrive, suddenly determined to wipe Hoyer out of the Democratic leadership for good and to deliver a message about her own primacy. She has been making phone calls, twisting arms and scaring the freshmen – most notably New York’s own Kristen Gillibrand who, it was reported, was grilled by Pelosi about the race in a private session on Tuesday moments before Pelosi asked the incoming lawmaker what committee assignments she hoped for.

This is an extremely risky gambit for Pelosi. For starters, it is far from clear that she can deliver this race for Murtha, who was well on his way to a lopsided rejection before Pelosi’s intervention.

Had she merely unveiled her innocuous endorsement letter and not rolled up her sleeves for Murtha, the possibility of his defeat would not be problematic for her. Yes, Hoyer is her enemy, but he would have been a lonely man in the Democratic leadership, which Pelosi has skillfully prevented Hoyer’s allies from penetrating.

But now she has turned this into a test of her leadership and clout. The question is why. Is she simply taking the media’s bait? Is she that confident in her ability to rally her troops – who, after all, have thwarted Hoyer and his allies in several previous leadership contests? Does she simply think whatever happens, it’ll all blow over?

The damage could be significant if she loses. Forget the public relations angle – this is a woman who has had a remarkably strong hold on the Democratic Caucus, despite the best efforts of her foes (internal and external) to undermine her. But this looks very petty and very personal– a grudge being carried out against a man, Hoyer, who Pelosi simply doesn’t trust and doesn’t like. And that could weaken her support structure within the Democratic caucus, whose ranks she has now divided just days after their stunning win at the polls.

Hoyer was favored to beat Murtha for internal reasons. He is more of a centrist and more of a K Street guy than many of his Democratic colleagues, but he’s been the whip for three years and the consensus is that he’s done a good job. To the average American, he may reek of hackiness, but inside Congress, Hoyer is an exceedingly friendly and pleasant man, which goes a long way in an arena in which business is conducted “member to member.”

More to the point, Hoyer and Pelosi have each spent the last two years bragging about the unprecedented unity Democrats have shown in floor votes. Whether they are Hoyer or Pelosi fans, most House Democrats agree that their teaming in leadership has been a big reason for that, with Pelosi bringing the lefties in and Hoyer catering to the moderates and conservatives. That helps explain why numerous Pelosi stalwarts – liberal lions like Barney Frank and Henry Waxman – long ago declared their support for Hoyer, even though they have considerable philosophical differences with him.

The Franks and Waxmans of the Caucus have always stuck with Pelosi, providing her with her 23-vote margin when she beat Hoyer in a leadership contest five years ago (had Hoyer won instead, he would now probably be the Speaker-in-waiting). But what do they think of her now?

Of course, Pelosi is a smarter operator than people give her credit for. Maybe she knows something none of us do and is convinced she can topple Hoyer. And if she does pull out a win for Murtha this morning, she will take the Speaker’s gavel with unparalleled and unquestioned power, the strongest Speaker the House has seen in years. And she’ll have delivered one final, lasting blow to Hoyer – the man she first met 40-something years ago, when they both interned for Maryland Senator Daniel Brewster.

Politics is like capitalism that way: the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.

– Steve Kornacki