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Should the Democrats Keep Pelosi?

In the wake of losing at least 60 seats in the House—their largest defeat in 70 years—there have been widespread calls for currrent Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to step down from her leadership position in the Democratic caucus. Republicans had urged voters to get to the polls to “Fire Pelosi.” Now that the Democrats have lost their majority in the House and Pelosi has to step down as speaker, Republican Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) says that if Pelosi stays on as Minority Leader it will be a sign that Democrats “just didn’t get the message from the voters this election.” In an editorial Sunday, The New York Times agreed that the Democrats need someone who can do a better job of selling their policies. Conservative Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler (D-NC)—who is interested in the post for himself—has also suggested that it is “time to move forward in a different direction.”

Pelosi is nationally very unpopular. Just two weeks before the election, Gallup found that just 29% of Americans approved of the job she was doing. The New York Times is right to suggest that she is not as gifted a spokesperson as she is an inside political player. And being from notoriously liberal San Francisco does make her especially vulnerable to political attacks. But a lot of her unpopularity comes with the job. As ranking Democrat in Congress and the primary force behind health care reform, she made a lot of enemies and became the major target of Republican attacks. Part of the reason that Pelosi—arguably one of the most effective Speakers in American history—is so hated by conservatives is that she managed to get so much legislation passed that they opposed. Pelosi was also targeted by a record-breaking $65 million advertising campaign—involving more than 160,000 ads—making her the face of everything wrong with Democratic Party. Nor should it be any surprise that the highest-ranking female politician in American history should be subject to vitriolic and often sexist attacks.

As unpopular as Pelosi may be, it’s not her fault the Democrats took such a beating in last week’s elections. She’s not the reason the economy continues to falter. Nor is she the reason Congress has been so dysfunctional. As I have argued, the real problems lay in the Senate, although it’s House Democrats who paid the major price for partisan infighting. And, as I have written, the Democrats were never likely to hold on to the seats in normally Republican districts they won in 2008 in with Obama on the ballot.

Pelosi’s unpopularity may make her an easy target, but Heath Shuler would be subject to the same kind of attacks if he took her job. In any case, the Minority Leader’s job is not primarily to be a spokesperson, but to build and hold together legislative coalitions. That’s exactly what Pelosi, who doesn’t sound like she is ready to step down, knows how to do. The Democrats are going to need her expertise in the next Congress, when the new Republican majority in the House maneuvers to cut off funding to Democratic programs and undermine the last Congress' accomplishments. As Greg Sargent says, “the key thing to understand is that we are about to enter a period of bruising procedural wars—precisely the type of thing that Pelosi has already excelled at.”

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