For Democrats, a Political Pothole That Could’ve Been Avoided

by Stuart Rothenberg May 25, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

Republicans have found the soft underbelly of the administration of President Barack Obama, and her name is Nancy Pelosi.

The Speaker performed admirably during her first two years as the top Congressional leader, elevating pragmatism over purity and successfully stepping back from the limelight to allow others to be the face of the Democratic Party.

But the recent flap over what the CIA did or didn’t tell Pelosi years ago when she was briefed by the agency on its interrogation techniques is a reminder of the California Democrat’s weaknesses.

Unable to crack Obama’s personal popularity and aware that his communication skills far exceed those of any GOP leader, Republicans have opted to go after a far weaker adversary, Congressional Democrats. And Pelosi is an easier target not just because it is always fashionable to complain about Congress.

For all of her noteworthy successes and abilities, and they are numerous, the Speaker is relatively weak on television and dealing with the press, as evidenced by her performance at her Thursday press conference. She’s particularly weak when backed into a corner. One longtime associate of the Speaker put it succinctly: “She doesn’t like dealing with the press. She doesn’t like to be questioned.”

Too often Pelosi seems flustered, even when she has no reason to be. Maybe it’s her halting speaking style, or that deer- in-the-headlights look that she regularly has.

Whatever it is, the California Democrat is a skittish speaker who doesn’t convey a sense of confidence and forthrightness. This makes her almost the polar opposite of the president, who invariably seems calm, poised, confident and straightforward.

The irony of the Pelosi-CIA controversy is that Democrats have created a problem for themselves because some in the party want to embarrass and punish members of the Bush administration. If that sounds weirdly reminiscent of the mistake Republicans made during the Clinton years, it is.

Democrats avoided these mistakes until recently because they understood that aggressive tactics could alienate voters and cause moderates to view them as partisan and petty.

Indeed, shortly after the 2006 elections, two high-ranking Democrats told me that the party’s victories came about because of Republican mistakes, not because voters had truly embraced Democrats. Both emphasized that their party needed to be cautious in the two years leading up to the 2008 presidential election.

But now, after a second straight drubbing at the polls for Republicans, some Democrats have assumed that voters agree with them on everything. Nothing good happens when party ideologues get too confident about their own moral superiority.

Regardless of where you stand on the Democrats’ desire to expose the transgressions of the Bush era or on who is telling the truth, the debate over who knew what and when has handed Republicans an issue and a target.

Some Democratic communications gurus dispute the seriousness of the problem, noting that the Speaker did not appear on any of the Sunday talk shows last weekend, and they insist the CIA-Pelosi feud will fade quickly as reporters look to other themes. They argue quite correctly, that the flap has not and likely won’t cost her support within her Caucus.

“She couldn’t cancel her weekly press conference,” argued one Democratic strategist I talked with. “That’s not who she is. She doesn’t run from a fight.”

And if Pelosi is telling the truth, she shouldn’t run from the fight. But that’s not the issue. The Speaker didn’t need to have a fight over this if she and her allies weren’t so concerned with what happened (or didn’t happen) years ago.

Even if the Pelosi flap subsides quickly (and Republicans will stoke the controversy as long as they can), the GOP now has a road map to follow. That’s an achievement for a party that has seemed just slightly short of clueless until recently.

Politics is about creating enemies, about demonizing opponents. That’s what Democrats have done to Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, and before them, to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Republicans did the same thing to Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Pelosi’s poll numbers already were weak before the recent flap. A mid-March CBS News poll showed her with an 18 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable rating. A February CNN poll found her ratings at 36 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable. A Feb. 26-March 1 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found 31 percent of respondents had a very positive or somewhat positive opinion of the Speaker, while 37 percent had a very negative or somewhat negative opinion.

Of course, Republicans could well overplay their hand on all this, looking like partisans merely after an issue rather than as defenders of national security and advocates of honesty in government. There is plenty of politics in the GOP’s indignation, and the party’s problems will not be solved by one controversy, especially one that does not involve Obama.

But even when the current controversy passes, it will leave its mark. National Republicans now have a political enemy who should help their fundraising, candidate recruitment and morale. And Democrats have a leader whose weaknesses have become apparent and who could be a lightning rod for an argument about national security that Obama and many Democratic strategists would rather not have.