The collapse of Richard Gephardt's leadership of the House Democratic Caucus
did not occur on November 5, when the party lost seats in an election where history
and economic trends suggested that it should have gained them. That result was
simply a confirmation of the crisis that had been evident for more than a year.
From the first days of George W. Bush's selected-not-elected presidency, it was
clear that Gephardt was unprepared to serve as the leader of Congressional opposition
to a Republican president. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,
he simply stopped trying. That doomed Democratic chances of taking over the House
in 2002, as Gephardt failed to define an opposition agenda and took positions
out of sync with his own caucus.
That was never more evident than on October 10 when, after Gephardt helped
craft the resolution authorizing Bush to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq, the
majority of House Democrats voted against the plan. In surprising result, 126
House Democrats opposed it with only 81 joining their leader Gephardt in supporting
Among the Democrats who opposed the resolution was House Minority Whip Nancy
Pelosi, the California Democrat who won the caucus' Number 2 leadership position
last year. Pelosi, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee
on Intelligence, argued -- as did Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham,
D-Florida -- that the Bush administration had failed to make a case for its position.
"I have seen no evidence or intelligence that suggests that Iraq indeed poses
an imminent threat to our nation," she said, in one of the most powerful indictments
of the resolution. "If the Administration has that information, they have not
shared it with the Congress."
Pelosi's stance placed her in direct opposition not just to the Bush administration
but to Gephardt. And it stirred immediate discussion among House Democrats about
what it might be like to be a genuine opposition party. An aggressive progressive,
Pelosi has long argued that Democrats need to clearly distinguish themselves from
Republicans on domestic and international issues. Now, she can point to Tuesday's
election results -- in which Democrats who opposed the Bush agenda on taxes and
war ran better than those who compromised with the administration -- as confirmation
of her view.
With Gephardt stepping down as minority leader, Pelosi is running hard to
replace him. She is not starting from scratch. Speculation about Gephardt's departure
-- in order to focus on a 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination
-- was rampant in the House even before the election, and Pelosi has been quietly
organizing support. But she was not alone in that endeavor. Another prominent
House Democrat, Caucus chair Martin Frost, D-Texas, has been running just as hard
With Gephardt's announcement that he is stepping aside, the contest for the
top Democratic leadership post in the House will speed up. Democrats are set to
choose a replacement for the minority leader on November 14. Pelosi is reported
to have collected commitments from 110 House Democrats to support her candidacy.
That would be more than enough to secure the position in a House that, depending
on final results from Tuesday, will include 204 Democratic representatives and
five delegates from US territories and the District of Columbia.
Commitments of this sort are no guarantee of support in the closed caucus
vote, however, and Pelosi's backers do not intend to coast through the next several
days. They know they will be involved in a serious internal campaign against Frost,
one of the ablest strategists in the House.
It would be a mistake to see the Pelosi-Frost fight as a clear left-right
struggle. Pelosi is one of the most progressive members of the House, with a voting
record that frequently displays 100 percent support for the positions advanced
by organized labor, environmental and consumer groups. But Frost, despite his
Texas roots, is no southern conservative. He too has earned his share of 100 percent
AFL-CIO ratings over the years. Pelosi has support from some conservative Democrats,
who see her as an able fund raiser and an effective spokesperson for the caucus.
Frost has liberal supporters who respect the leadership role he's played in coordinating
congressional campaigns over the years.
That said, there are clear distinctions. Where Pelosi was a leading foe of
the Iraq resolution, Frost supported it. Pelosi has in recent years been an outspoken
critic of the corporate free-trade agenda, while Frost has a mixed record that
includes a vote to permanently normalize trade relations with China. (That vote
by Frost so angered local United Auto Workers members that, in 2000, they removed
desks that had been donated for use in the congressman's campaign office. He has
since been more supportive of labor's position on trade issues.)
The biggest difference between Frost and Pelosi came through as they staked
out their visions for how House Democrats should position themselves in the next
Congress. The day after Tuesday's vote, Frost's spokesman Tom Eisenhauer told
reporters, "The country moved to the right yesterday. And House Democrats won't
win the majority by moving further to the left."
Pelosi, for her part, is arguing that Democrats need to distinguish themselves
from Republicans. "To win back the House in 2004," she says, "we need a unified
party that will draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and that
espoused by the Republicans."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive
politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade.
Formerly a writer and editor for The Toledo Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
newspapers, he is now editorial page editor for The Capital Times in Madison,
Copyright © 2002 The Nation