This story was updated on Nov. 6 at 1:23 p.m.
Despite the dyspepsia among some moderate House Democrats, outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi has always had first dibs on the position of minority leader, even if the branding of her as the legislative handmaiden of President Obama contributed to the party’s losing control of the House.
House Democrats told National Journal all week that the job was Pelosi’s for the taking and that current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer would never challenge her for the post.
Hoyer, Democrats said, would only seek a promotion if Pelosi was retiring. She’s not, so he’s not. End of story. There may be a rump group of moderates who oppose Pelosi, but Democratic insiders say they will soon discover two unsettling realities: They don’t have the votes to defeat Pelosi; and the longer they pursue this futile strategy, the more they will alienate Pelosi and the formidable fundraising prowess she still commands.
“It’s understandable that (Democratic) Caucus members would encourage her to run,” said Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist with close ties to the White House and a former top adviser to former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt. “The daunting political and fundraising work that needs to occur over the next few years is overwhelming. I suspect many (Democrats) want as many of their top players in uniform as possible. “
Pelosi’s choice to stay and fight tells Democrats in Washington and across the country two things: She believes winning back the majority is possible in 2012, and she’s not going to stand idly by while Republicans try to pick apart the legislative accomplishments she worked so aggressively to achieve.
While she argues that the efforts in health care, Wall Street reform and education were aimed at improving the economy, she told the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne in his Saturday column that Democrats now need to think "shorter-term" and put "jobs, jobs, jobs front and center."
Republicans have already begun to cheer Pelosi’s decision, confident it will give them a nationally recognized target as they prepare to battle the White House over tax cuts, health care, and spending.
“Given that there are now 60-plus defeated Democrat House members urgently seeking jobs due to Nancy Pelosi’s failed leadership, we welcome her decision to run for House minority leader based on her proven ability to create jobs for Republican lawmakers,” said Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Some Democrats believe, though, that Republicans may soon find themselves in the “be careful what you wish for” caucus.
Pelosi was tenacious as a consensus-builder within the Democratic caucus and will be no less energetic in rallying Democrats after their defeat and organizing the opposition against Republicans.
And presumptive Speaker John Boehner’s decision to move power from leadership circles to committees will give the Democrats ample opportunity to use amendments and committee procedures to shoot holes in the GOP agenda -- forcing uncomfortable votes on popular spending programs, for example, or more directly pitting the deficit implications of tax cuts for the highest-income earners against inevitable proposals to cut programs aimed at the middle class and the poor.
Initial reactions from the Left underscored this fundamental belief in Pelosi’s skills and her ability to lead a dispirited, somewhat shell-shocked Democratic caucus.
"Speaker Pelosi’s decision to run for leader is the first bold move we’ve seen from Democrats since the election,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “America is better off as a result, and we hope there’s more bold Democratic leadership to come.
"Democrats lost on Tuesday because of Blue Dogs and others who urged Democrats to not fight for popular progressive change -- and the way to reinspire former Obama voters is to have progressives like Nancy Pelosi boldly fighting the fight," Taylor said.
Pelosi's clout is enhanced by her prodigious fundraising. In this campaign cycle, she contributed $1.5 million directly to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, not to mention the millions more she raised as an event headliner. She contributed directly to no fewer than 75 House Democratic candidates, many, though not all, seeking re-election. Again, this is a small fraction of her estimated $65 million fund-raising machinery but it does offer a glimpse into her political strength.
But if Pelosi is without a rival for the minority leader slot, there's an all out scramble for Minority Whip, the No. 2 leadership position. On Friday, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the current Majority Leader, announced his interest in the position
Even as Hoyer made his intentions public, the current Democratic Majority Whip, James Clyburn of South Carolina, e-mailed colleagues declaring his candidacy for the post.
Any Hoyer-Clyburn race would strain the caucus as Hoyer, a long-time party leader who has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Pelosi, would be challenging the party’s most prominent African American leader for the number two post.
With Pelosi’s position atop the caucus now clear, the fight for the Whip’s position will test the caucus’ ability to sort out ideology, ethnic visibility and, not incidentally, the party’s ability to recruit candidates for the 2012 cycle.
Clyburn’s candidacy will inevitably invite the staunch support of the Congressional Black Caucus and likely inspire support among many of Pelosi’s progressive followers. That could leave Hoyer out-numbered in a caucus that saw its ranks of moderate and conservative Democrats decimated in the mid-terms.
Hoyer is the most visible Democratic leadership link to the business community. Many moderate Democratic strategists and pro-business Democrats said privately a Democratic caucus devoid of a moderate or semi-moderate voice like Hoyer’s would cause business support to the DCCC to dry up. They also fear it could diminish if not destroy the party’s ability to attract strong candidates in the very swing districts they need to win to regain the majority.
In essence, several Democrats said a potential Hoyer-Clyburn race would be a proxy fight for Democratic definition heading into the 2012 cycle. If the leadership is drawn entirely from the liberal wing of the caucus, it will signal Pelosi wants two years of hard, defining fights with Republicans to soften them up form Obama’s bid for re-election – seeing that as the top prize and perhaps placing a return to power in the House second in the strategic pecking order.
Meanwhile, liberal support for Pelosi continued apace as evidenced by this statement from Rep. George Miller of California, among Pelosi’s closest confidants and outgoing Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.
“I am very encouraged that Speaker Pelosi has decided to stay in Congress and run for Democratic Leader. We have many talented people in our Caucus, each of whom has contributed to our success over the past few years, but I believe she is the best person for this important job at this time."