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Commentary

Liberal Leader for a Liberal Party

November 12, 2002|Ross K. Baker | Ross K. Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers University.

There is an anxiety, almost amounting to panic, that is agitating centrist Democrats in the wake of the announcement last week by one of their own, Texas Rep. Martin Frost, that he was conceding the race for House minority leader to Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco.

The fear among these "New Democrats" is that the elevation of Pelosi signals a dangerous lurch to the left, an embrace of ultraliberalism that will alienate swing voters and condemn the party for all eternity to the margins of American politics.

The almost certain selection of Pelosi on Thursday when the caucus convenes should occasion no shudders of dread in the heart of any Democrat. Pelosi's ascension to the chairmanship merely confirms a well-recognized fact: Liberals dominate the Democratic Party in the House and have for some time.

What is more, if Pelosi were not a liberal when she first aspired to the job, she would quickly have had to become one.

As in the case of their GOP counterparts in the House, the Democrats' center of ideological gravity has moved decisively away from the center. Centrist Democrats, like moderate Republicans, are something of a curiosity in a chamber in which sharply edged doctrinal lines have supplanted the broader demilitarized zone of past years, when there was an abundance of members ready to cut a deal or strike a compromise.

We can trace the rise in ideological polarization in the various individuals who have held leadership positions in Congress in recent years. The rise of Newt Gingrich to the speakership on the GOP side is the most prominent example, but the Democrats who have gained leadership positions, though milder in manner than the fiery Gingrich, are no less partisan and only slightly less ideological.

In his years in the House, the outgoing Democratic leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, evolved from voting scores of 35% by the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1978 to 75% in 1988 to 100% in 1999.

His evolution might be seen as the reverse of the usual philosophical life cycle in which youthful liberalism gives way to midlife conservatism. Viewed less charitably, it represents the gradual adaptation of an ambitious moderate Democrat with designs on leadership of a party growing markedly more liberal.

Pelosi does not have to make this protracted political pilgrimage. She racked up a 100% ADA score as a freshman in 1988, and that's where she stands today.

Honest Democrats can disagree about whether the party should steer a centrist course in the hope of being more attractive to middle-of-the-road voters or devote itself to the party's core of very liberal voters -- African Americans and union members, for example -- but what no one can deny is that the left is dominant in the House. This group advocates "energizing the party's base" by stressing such issues as national health, raising the minimum wage and tempering welfare reform.

The New Democrat faction that was in ascendancy during the Clinton years has been deeply troubled since the defeat of Al Gore in the 2000 election. They have seized on any evidence of a leftward turn to sound the alarm that the Democrats are marching into a political cul-de-sac. Even Gore, the designated heir to Clinton, was faulted by these party centrists for conducting his presidential campaign with the verbal weapons of "class warfare," an inflammatory term designed to conjure up images of Leon Trotsky or Che Guevara haranguing sullen proletarians. So while Gephardt evolved into a recognizable liberal in the manner of his predecessors Jim Wright and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, so Pelosi will come to office already garlanded with laurels from every liberal group from the League of Conservation Voters to the public employees unions.

But what makes her role as party leader especially ominous to the New Democrats is her constituency, San Francisco, with its louche politics and unconventional lifestyles. They fear the kind of scorn visited on the party by Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick at the GOP convention in 1984 when she sneeringly referred to "the San Francisco Democrats."

To be sure, the House Democrats are not all there is to the Democratic Party, but even in the Senate a sizable number of Democrats could answer to "liberal" or its more politically correct synonym, "progressive."

And despite the lamentations of Democratic centrists that Pelosi represents something ominous, the party's likely new leader in the House is as authentic a representative as anyone of where the Democratic Party stands.

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