Pelosi Makes all Politics National

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi/AP file

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi/AP file

The late-House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-MA) had it all wrong.

All politics is national.

At least in the 2010 midterm elections.

Of course, all politics being "national" flies in the face of O'Neill's oft-quoted thesis. O'Neill's theory was that politicians made decisions about issues based on local, almost parochial concerns. People in Cambridge see things differently than folks across the Charles River in Back Bay. That's to say nothing of people in Lowell. Or out on Cape Cod.

And I haven't talked about how their viewpoints differ in Terre Haute, IN, Brilliant, AL, or Truth or Consequences, NM.

In the eyes of O'Neill, a politician could score re-election if he or she represented the will of the people back home.

This dispels the very concept of national waves and trends.

Until you peer more closely at what unfolded in the 2010 midterm elections. And perhaps even more importantly, explore the post-election turmoil in the Democratic ranks spurred by the decision of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to remain at her post as the number one House Democrat next year.

In the 2010 election, local politics was nationalized. And then localized again at the very end.

Let's begin with the localization O'Neill spoke of. People worried about their jobs and economic security. They fretted even more about prospects for the next generation and where the country was going.

This is where local concerns began to morph into the national debate.

Of course the alleged "fix" to the economy was the gigantic, $700 billion federal stimulus package that many voters deemed a failure. Couple that with federalized health care reform plus big government spending, and Republicans had nearly nationalized the local politics of the 2010 midterm elections.

But not just yet.

Politics is theatre. And all good productions feature a villain. Someone who embodies the fears of the protagonist and evokes a visceral response with the audience. Villains come in many forms. Darth Vader. Nurse Ratched. The Joker. Freddy Krueger. Hannibal Lecter.

And Republicans lined up a central casting villain for 2010.

"Nancy Pelosi was on the ballot in all 435 races," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). That's the Washington-based political organization charged with electing members of the GOP to the House.

"My job was to not only make sure (Pelosi) was on the ballot, but to make sure that people back home had a referendum and the ability to retire Nancy Pelosi back in Mississippi and in Texas and in Arizona and yes, even in Idaho," Sessions said.

So in the mind of Sessions, Pelosi helped nationalize the election. And then Republicans localized it once again.

"Even if they had a voting record that they could sustain, their vote for Nancy Pelosi was for the agenda. And the agenda was about taxing and spending and not reading the bills," said Sessions.

In fact in Sessions' mind, it could even be the "Pelosization" of the election. Republicans piled on anti-Pelosi rhetoric in dozens upon dozens of competitive House races. They often intimated that Congressman A or Candidate B would simply be a vote for Pelosi's agenda if they got to Washington.

And linking Pelosi to Democratic candidates proved to be a sound strategy for Republicans. Opinion research conducted after the election for the GOP by noted pollster Frank Luntz found that only a little over a quarter of those surveyed viewed Pelosi in a positive light. Luntz says Pelosi carried a 51 percent unfavorable rating. Those figures stand in stark contrast to even President Obama's weak poll numbers and make Pelosi the most undesirable American politician going.

Sessions highlighted how Republicans deployed their "Fire Pelosi" message against veteran but vulnerable Democrats all over the country. For instance, Republican Vicky Hartzler toppled House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO).

"Ike melted away because he did not have a compelling argument on why he would vote for Nancy Pelosi from the state of Missouri," said Sessions. "(Jim) Oberstar (D-MN), (Paul) Kanjorski (D-PA), Chet Edwards (D-TX), Gene Taylor (D-MS), Ike Skelton, John Spratt (D-SC) - these were all senior Democrats who supported the underpinnings of Nancy Pelosi's agenda. And we have effectively, for the better part of a year, sold the demise of that agenda and how it would cause the demise of local people back home. Bad year. Bad year for them."

In other words, all politics is local. Until it's nationalized. And then localized again.

A former House Democratic House aide conceded that Republicans made Pelosi the issue.

"They absolutely made her a part of their national platform," said the former aide, noting that it didn't help that Pelosi represents liberal San Francisco. "I mean it's the place where they ban Happy Meals with toys and do silly things. The symbology is easy."

Which is why Pelosi's decision to hang around after an electoral debacle is so vexing for many Democrats.

Democrats aren't yet positioned to dust themselves off and forge ahead. Instead, other Democrats like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-CT), Vice Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-CA) and Special Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) are waging internecine battles in an effort to cling to their leadership posts.

Many thought it was a near-given that Pelosi would step aside and let Hoyer assume the top job on the Democrats' side of the aisle.

"It surprised many members of the caucus that Pelosi decided to stay on," said one Democratic House member.

Pelosi certainly holds significant support from the House Democrats who remain standing. Otherwise, she wouldn't be poised to become House Minority Leader.

Take this glowing endorsement from fellow Bay Area Democrat Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA): "Nancy Pelosi is the person we need to help America recover, to help the Democrats recover and to help restore the confidence of every American."

But many Democrats are just downright bitter about her maneuver.

"As for Nancy, I have more respect for the guy on the Titanic who continued playing his violin as the ship sank to the bottom of the frigid, cold ocean," said one House Democratic aide who lost his job after his boss flamed-out last week.

Meantime, a group of Democrats who lost at the polls are shopping around a draft letter that would implore the speaker to step down for the next Congress.

"You have been an historic figure in our great nation, and for that we are all proud, as should you be. Nonetheless, we each experienced how Republican demonization of you and your leadership contributed to our defeat," says the missive.

So far, no ousted Democrats have signed the letter. Yet.

Republicans were jubilant at Pelosi's news. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele erupted into applause Friday afternoon when told that Pelosi intended to stay. Also on Friday, a gang of reporters pursued presumptive-House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) through the first floor of the Capitol to get his reaction to Pelosi's decision. Never one to shy away from the press, Boehner demurred. As the questioning persisted, Boehner began to hum and whistle in an effort to ignore the reporters' queries as they dogged him down the hall.

As the scribes learned later, Boehner was en route to Pelosi's office for a meeting. No fool he, Boehner didn't want to either diss Pelosi nor bask in the schadenfreude of the Democrats' fate.

That was left to prospective-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). Appearing on FOX, Cantor declared that Democrats apparently "didn't get the message" from the election if they tapped Pelosi to be their leader.

"I mean the voters outright rejected the agenda that she's been about. And here they're going to put her back in charge," Cantor said. "I don't think there's any question that this says to the voters, ‘We're not listening to you. We think we're right. We're going to continue the same path,'" Cantor said.

So now the Democrats first order of business is sorting out a leadership skirmish between two of Pelosi's top lieutenants, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn.

"I think that people underestimate how Darwinian she is," said one senior leadership aide of Pelosi's decision to let Hoyer and Clyburn duke it out.

But where is the profit for Democrats nationally with Pelosi at the helm? Here's an interesting statistic: States will move to alter the geography of Congressional districts following the 2010 census. With success at the state level, Republicans will control the redrawing of nearly 200 Congressional districts. Democrats will only decide the fates of between 44 seats.

Plus, the most harsh redistricting centers on locales where Democrats suffered prodigious losses this year. These are places where Democrats picked up seats in 2006 and 2008. Most are in rural areas in the midwest and south. These are regions where Nancy Pelosi is unpopular and would face trouble assisting Democratic candidates.

So, if Democrats are to re-take the majority, they have to do it in these newly-drawn districts that will not be favorable to Democrats.

"You cannot get back to the majority with the districts you have," said a former House aide. "Steny (Hoyer) is the guy to go back into those districts that you lost."

This could be a triple-whammy for Democrats. First they lost competitive seats this year. Secondly, the lines could be drawn to favor Republicans. And third, Pelosi doesn't perform well in districts where Democrats must recruit candidates and earn the trust of voters who abandoned them this year.

Talk about nationalization and localization trends working in tandem against the Democrats.All politics is local. Except when it isn't. But only after Republicans nationalized the races, trying to hamstring many Democrats with Nancy Pelosi.

Which is explains why some Democrats who lost last week are exploring ways to preserve their party brethren in two years.

"One mark of a strong leader is the ability to discern when it is time to pass the baton," says the draft letter requesting Pelosi to relinquish her leadership position. "As defeated members, whose party needs to rebuild, we are counting on you to show the strength of your leadership in this dark hour. We ask that you step aside as leader of our party in the House."

In other words, they want all politics to be local again.