"Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble...And if I stay it will be double." - The Clash, 1982
Who knew that punk rockers like The Clash would have the prescience of philosopher-kings to ponder one of the most-compelling questions of the 2010 election cycle: Should House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) stay or should she go?
And should Pelosi stay or go, regardless of whether her party is in the majority or minority next year?
This a conundrum for the Speaker. If she retires, Pelosi disappoints House liberals who will outnumber moderate Democrats in the next Congress. But if Pelosi stays, the trouble could expand geometrically. Many voters upset with Congress blame her for passing the health care and stimulus bills. A decision by Pelosi to stay could contribute to an increasingly toxic image and alienate moderates and independents.
A new Gallup Poll survey shows Pelosi's approval ratings plummeted seven points since spring to 29 percent. That's the lowest approval mark since she took the Speaker's gavel in January, 2007.
And now, rarely a day passes without an imperiled House Democrat dissing Pelosi.
"From what we're hearing, she's probably not going to run for speaker again," said Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) on WWAY-TV in Wilmington, NC, earlier this week.
A House Democratic aide says that's not true. But McIntyre is happy to build some real estate between himself and the unpopular speaker.
"I'm confident she's going to have opposition and I look forward to supporting that opposition," McIntyre said.
Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) told Roll Call that the next Congress would "necessitate new leadership in the Speaker's position."
Altmire is one of the "majority-makers." It's a term Pelosi uses to describe Democrats who seized Republican ground in the past two election cycles and helped propel her to speaker. But while the likes of Altmire may have been good for Pelosi's career, Altmire doesn't believe the San Francisco Democrat has been good for his.
"I hope that she is not a candidate for speaker," Altmire told Roll Call's Kate Hunter.
Altmire's uneasiness about Pelosi is consistent with analysis the Gallup organization offered in its poll: "Pelosi's subdued favorability among Democrats and highly negative image among independents suggest she is a far riskier person for Democratic candidates to be associated with."
Which is why anti-Pelosi forces are legion among conservative Democrats who face uphill climbs this November.
Rep. Bobby Bright (D-AL) was the first Democrat to outright declare he wouldn't support Pelosi again for speaker. Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) said he "cast his last vote" for Pelosi.
"I have had always preferred a different candidate," Marshall said.
Rep. Travis Childers (D-MS) echoed Marshall.
"I'd like to see someone more moderate in that role," Childers told the Tupelo (MS) Daily Journal.
Of course, some of this could be political engineering. Pelosi has said repeatedly that House Democrats know best how to communicate with their constituents. So the case could be made that if some Democrats need to make Pelosi into a boogeyman this fall to win re-election, so be it.
But still, these Democrats would be hard-pressed to backtrack and support Pelosi in a leadership race.
Political handicappers anticipate a Republican majority in the House when the new Congress convenes in January. That means that the new GOP majority would probably promote House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) to speaker. Does Pelosi want to stick around as her party's standard bearer as the Democrats are demoted to minority status? And what happens if Democrats cling to the majority by a few seats?
This is where The Clash's Socratic dialectic of "should she stay or should she go" comes into play. And it's magnified by the conflict of Pelosi weighing her desire to stay versus the potential of a more negative outcome if she remains on the job.
It's often said that nothing is decided until everything is decided in politics. And that seems to be what's at work here. First, Pelosi must determine if Democrats maintain the majority. This is obviously the best-case scenario for Pelosi. It would vindicate the speaker and her policies despite forecasts of a cataclysmic political storm for Democrats.
But first, Pelosi must see who weathered that storm. If Democrats maintain control yet lose the likes of Altmire, Marshall, Bright, Childers, McIntyre and others, she can probably stay on the job. After all, the Democrats who didn't lose come from her power base: the liberal wing of the House Democratic Caucus. But say Democrats hold on and many of those who oppose her win re-election? It's doubtful Pelosi has the votes and she could cede power to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
But what happens if Democrats lose the majority? Does she want to hold on as minority leader? Some may suggest she's the perfect fit to challenge GOP policies.
Pelosi's power is certainly curtailed under that scenario. Many Democrats will argue it's time for fresh blood and she might not be able to win a leadership race. Still, it depends on the makeup of the Democratic Caucus. There are few in Congress who can count noses like Pelosi. And she'll know whether she has the votes.
The U.S. Capitol buzzed as it always does on that day in early January. For it was the first day of a new Congress. Family members of lawmakers, aides and tourists packed the viewing galleries and erupted in applause as all 435 members were sworn-in.
Then it was time for the newly-formed House to tackle its first order of business: the selection of a speaker.
The gruff voice of the House Reading Clerk bellowed as he alphabetically read the surname of all 435 members. It's like a call and response at church. The clerk utters the name. Then the lawmaker stands and declares his or her preference for speaker. The clerk then repeats the name of the lawmaker and states their choice.
In this instance, the House Speaker seeking re-election had just endured a tumultuous Congress. It was clear the speaker did not have the full support of the majority party. Lawmakers from California and New York cast their votes for a fellow Congressman from Iowa. The Congressman from Iowa and a Congresswoman from Washington voted for retired lawmakers. House members from Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland and Virginia voted "present."
The majority party re-elected its old speaker. But not by much.
Such was the case on January 7, 1997 when Republicans re-elected Newt Gingrich (R-GA) to his last term as House Speaker. Bloodied by a thermonuclear war over spending with the White House, scrapes with his own party and a nasty brawl with the House Ethics Committee, Gingrich was a shadow of the leader he was when Republicans seized control of the House two years earlier.
The Gingrich brand was virulent. Republican lawmakers distrusted him and doubted his skills. The writing was on the wall.
"I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals," Gingrich said when announcing his resignation in 1998.
If the Republican cannibals came for Gingrich then, it's clear some Democrats are licking their chops, too. And if the Democratic cannibals are on the loose, Nancy Pelosi will soon have a clear answer to the question "Should I stay or should I go?"