Politicians are not a thin-skinned bunch. To survive in a Darwinian environment, they quickly learn how to duck just about any insult you can throw at them. “I’m not a corrupt corporate stooge; I’m actively working with business leaders to help to stimulate the economy.” “I’m not inconsistent to the point of schizophrenia, I’m thoughtful and open-minded.” “I’m not a philandering whoremonger; I’m just getting in touch with my constituents.” It seems that there’s only one slur in this “perception is everything” world that our leaders truly fear: “What do you mean, I’m not ready for primetime?”
The implication that a candidate isn’t professional enough for the rough-and-tumble world of the 24-hour cycle is the nuclear weapon of modern American electoral politics. As soon it hits you, your career is vaporized. Witness the implosion of Senator George Allen’s reelection campaign in Virginia. The “macaca” incident on its own would not have been a mortal wound, but his stumblebum response set off a vicious chain reaction, resulting in a media firestorm that consumed his chances for victory. The repeated gaffes and missteps made him look amateurish and unprepared, and that image cost him his seat. The American people judge those who crack under pressure exceedingly harshly.
Certain members of the party that benefited from Allen’s embarrassing fall from grace would do well to remember his example. The Democratic top dogs in the House of Representatives have responded to their freshly won authority like a young baseball player overwhelmed by his first Major League call-up. The past week has featured several easy grounders rolling through the legs of Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi and the new majority. If the catfight over the majority leadership wasn’t enough, the past weekend saw the incoming chair of the House Ways and Means Committee propose the reinstitution of the military draft. Charlie Rangel has pulled this stunt before, but there’s one important difference between now and 2003: When your party is in control, the public actually pays attention.
There are vastly different expectations placed on the governing party and its opposition. The minority has little ability to further its programs and is rarely held responsible for getting anything done as a result. If they intend to recapture Congress, they had better be able to make a case to the voters that they are better suited to run the nation, but that case can be “well, we couldn’t possibly run things any worse.” The lowered standards the opposition is held to make internal bickering and the antics of individual members seem less serious. Some degree of soul-searching is desirable as the party attempts to identify how it lost the hearts and minds of the American people. When the country’s focus is not on you, you can make some silly mistakes without crippling your cause.
Once you’ve been handed the keys to Capitol Hill, the situation changes radically. The majority is called upon to be decisive and united, to provide real leadership and to put real ideas into practice. Open dissension about the direction of the party is viewed as a sign of weakness on the part of those in charge, and even the most over-the-top extremist becomes worthy of attention because seniority gives him a vote on an influential committee. The governing group is asked to govern, not just offer criticism. If it appears that they lack the maturity and discipline to prioritize policy over power politics and ideological sniping, it will be incredibly difficult for them to do so successfully.
In the two weeks since the midterm elections, the Democrats have had considerable trouble making the transition from the former role to the latter. Nancy Pelosi took the good will she earned by helping to engineer the takeover of the House and ran straight into a wall with it by backing ally John Murtha over current number-two Steny Hoyer for majority leader. Throwing her weight behind an upstart candidate for a leadership position and having him lose by a substantial margin has left a dent in Pelosi’s “force to be reckoned with” aura. It reveals a far less than absolute command over the back bench. It also calls her political instincts into question. At least in retrospect, it’s hard to conceive how she could have imagined that Murtha would be able to win. Does she have that little influence? Is she that out of touch with the bulk of the party faithful? The Rangel incident on the heels of Hoyer’s victory is just the icing on the cake, the amateurish farce that follows the amateurish tragedy. The new majority is demonstrating a disturbing tendency to wilt under the glare of the bright lights.
There is no doubt that passing a verdict on how effectively the Democrats can deal with the burdens of the big leagues before they actually take control of Congress would be both unfair and thoroughly pointless. But the party is sacrificing its mandate with such squabbling and grandstanding when it will be needed to further their agenda in January. It is a poor tactic, and it makes the Democrats look like they cannot come to grips with success. After so many years out of the driver’s seat, the new leadership needs to ensure that they do not appear too inexperienced to actually lead. If they can’t, the real victor in the Hoyer-Murtha battle will be none other than a certain senator from Arizona.