WASHINGTON – When the rules of the House of Representatives forced the Democrats to confront a painful choice among their leaders, they did what Democrats are often inclined to do. They changed the rules.
Usually, such a stunt would matter only to the members affected by the change. But this one sends a dangerous signal at a crucial moment, when both parties are being tested on their willingness to respond to the lessons of the last election. This is a disquieting development.
When the Democrats lost their House majority in the political upheaval on Nov. 2, they also lost one of their four leadership posts. Since the speaker would no longer come out of their caucus, House rules required them to yield it to the Republicans, who will use it to elevate John Boehner.
Instead of having four people in the formal leadership of the House, the Democrats should have three – a minority leader, a deputy or whip, and the chairman of the Democratic caucus.
It has always worked this way whenever an election shifts control on the House between the parties. Someone on the losing side loses his leadership job.
Republicans have established a pattern and precedent of trimming their leadership from the top, either by deposing the outgoing speaker or encouraging him to leave the House. When Republicans lost their majority in 2006, Speaker Denny Hastert took it as a cue that it was time to go home to Illinois.
There was ample precedent for firing from the top on the Democratic side as well. Speaker Tom Foley lost his seat when home district voters rebelled in the Republican rout of 1994. Speaker Jim Wright was forced out after being investigated for financial ethics violations.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost no time after the returns came in this month in signaling that she would not go gently. Within 24 hours of learning that she would no longer be speaker, she informed her caucus that she would run for minority leader – a post she won on Wednesday.
Except for a few disgruntled members of the conservative Blue Dog caucus and some Republicans, no opposition surfaced. Pelosi has been the best fundraiser on the Democratic side, funneling money to both liberals and moderates. And she has been President Obama’s loyal lieutenant in the legislative fights of the past two years.
Her decision triggered other battles. When she claimed the minority leadership, Steny Hoyer was demoted one level to whip, and he in turn bumped Jim Clyburn from that job.
Hoyer had no problem in accepting the change; he had been No. 2 to Pelosi before. But Clyburn was not as accommodating, and suddenly, the Democratic caucus faced a crisis.
The two men who both aspired to remain in the leadership were no ordinary players. Hoyer, who once challenged Pelosi unsuccessfully for the top leadership post, had close ties to moderate and conservative Democrats already devastated by their election losses. Clyburn is a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in many ways the most loyal and dependable bloc in the party.
Neither man was willing to step down, and Democrats could not afford to have either of them humiliated. So what to do? Change the rules. Invent a new job of assistant leader, which no specific duties, and slot Clyburn for that post.
Normally, this would not matter much. But we are about to start a new Congress where everything depends on the willingness of the leadership in both parties to face up to hard choices – on the budget, Afghanistan and a dozen other issues.
Too often in the past Democrats have avoided making hard choices by throwing more money in the pot or taking similar self-indulgent steps. Way back in Lyndon Johnson’s time, a well-conceived and carefully targeted Model Cities program was disgraced when the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee saw to it that Smithville, Tenn., his hometown, became one of the recipients. Some laboratory for urban policy.
The Democrats’ unwillingness to face the hard choice in this internal fight sends exactly the wrong signal.
David Broder writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.