The Blunderers Are Winning The Debate

To say that Harry Reid’s pronouncement that the war in Iraq is “lost” stirred a media frenzy last week is an understatement.

Which was understandable.

After all, Republicans have been straining to caricature their foes as surrender-happy coddlers of “the enemy.” Mr. Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, seemed to be playing right into their hands.

But there is reason to believe that his provocative—if arguably clumsy—rhetoric is the product of a correct calculation that the public is warming to the more aggressive Democratic posture on the war.

Recall that, back in November, Mr. Reid deemed it necessary to reassure voters that Democrats were “not going to do anything to limit funding” of the war. But just a few weeks ago, he felt secure enough to put his name on legislation that would essentially defund that very same war by next March. And this week, he prodded Democrats to include a six-month troop-withdrawal timetable in a funding bill that will soon be sent to the President.

President George W. Bush, meanwhile, has only dug in his heels on the war—even as the public, for the most part, has shrugged off the G.O.P.’s efforts to marginalize the Democrats. An ABC News/Washington Post survey last week gave Mr. Reid a solid 46 to 33 percent approval rating. And if those numbers seem healthy, they are surpassed by the 53 to 35 percent approval rating that his House counterpart, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, registered.

Actually, it was Ms. Pelosi—much more than Mr. Reid—whom Republicans initially considered the easy mark, judging her to be politically tone-deaf and incapable of keeping herself from projecting an air of effete San Francisco liberalism. They saw an opportunity to paint her as a cross between Barbra Streisand and Michael Dukakis.

So far, she’s defied the caricature.

First, there was the G.O.P.-incited flare-up over Ms. Pelosi’s request for a military jet to transport her from Washington to her home district in California—the same service that had been provided to her Republican predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, for the previous five years.

The Republican National Committee, The Washington Times, the Drudge Report and a small army of Congressional Republicans fanned out to claim that Ms. Pelosi was simply trying to live like a queen at the taxpayers’ expense.

The story riled up elements of the G.O.P. base, but it quickly fell apart when—rather inconveniently—it came to light that Ms. Pelosi had made the request on the advice of the Pentagon and with Mr. Bush’s blessing, and that she also offered to simply fly commercial if the arrangement would be too complicated.

Then there was the Speaker’s recent trip to Syria, aggressively decried by the same chorus. Again, never mind that Republican members of Congress had taken identical trips in the preceding weeks and months, or that Ms. Pelosi’s own delegation included a Republican House member, David Hobson of Ohio. At the tail end of her trip, her critics even stirred up chatter that Ms. Pelosi would next head to Iran—something she quickly put the kibosh on, though not before the massively influential Drudge Report gave it some play.

The attempts to undermine Ms. Pelosi’s standing began long before she took over the Speaker’s gavel, and they haven’t been entirely ineffective. After all, slightly more than a third of the public doesn’t approve her job performance.

But what Republicans—as well as many Democrats who were privately skeptical—may be realizing now is that Ms. Pelosi is more than a bit savvier than they ever imagined. As the Democrats’ prospects brightened throughout 2006, it was almost an article of faith within the D.C. world that Ms. Pelosi would be her party’s Newt Gingrich, a polarizing and recklessly outspoken Speaker who would do more to rile up the other side’s base than her own.

For now, at least, she’s outsmarted them all, draping herself in references to motherhood (and grandmotherhood), and sticking to a highly disciplined public script that puts her squarely on the side of the majority of Americans and against the administration on the war. She’s also presided over a level of unity within the Democratic ranks that many thought would be impossible, given the ideological differences she has with scores of moderate to conservative House Democrats.

A few years ago, when they were in the minority, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Reid teamed up to offer a joint response on national television to Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address. The reviews, even among Democrats, were scathing. Neither seemed comfortable on camera; Ms. Pelosi appeared over-scripted, and Mr. Reid was simply underwhelming in his delivery.

Few back then would have believed that either would emerge from their first 100 days in power in such an enviable political position. Now the question is what they will do with it.

 

Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that advocates a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.

The Blunderers Are Winning The Debate