WASHINGTON – House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a favorite lightning rod for Republican congressional contestants who are warning voters that if Democrats win back the House of Representatives in November, Pelosi is likely to become speaker of the House.
Pelosi doesn't mind the assumption. She even alludes to it in speeches.
"Democrats believe America should be energy independent, and we intend to achieve that goal within 10 years," she told the Agribusiness Club of Washington on Monday. "Again, with our plan, we will stop sending our energy dollars to the Middle East, and invest them in the Midwest and in our rural areas from coast to coast."
A 10-term member from California, Pelosi became House Democratic leader when Dick Gephardt resigned from the post in 2002 to run for president in 2004. At the time, she made clear her intention to win the House back for Democrats within two election cycles.
The job means being a visible target for political opponents. But recently, Pelosi has faced criticism from Democrats and others political watchers, some of whom have suggested that she might not be the right face for the party in the crucial months before the November ballot.
"We need to be concerned about reaching out to the middle, people who have voted Democrat in the past, or independents," said Greg Simpson, chairman of the Dubuque County Democratic Party in Iowa. "Whether that is [Pelosi's] responsibility or purview I don't know."
"Pelosi has done little to embolden Democrats with a winning agenda beyond the rhetoric of direct mail attacks on Republicans, leaving party candidates on their own to say anything relevant to the millions of nonpartisan voters who will decide control of Congress," Craig Crawford, Congressional Quarterly columnist and author of "Attack the Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against the Media," wrote in June.
"Pelosi might be a skilled backroom operator, but compared to Newt Gingrich's fiery crusade to GOP victory in 1994 — well, there is no comparison," Crawford added. "It is as difficult to imagine Pelosi as speaker of the House as it is to envision (comedian) Adam Sandler as Superman."
One of Pelosi's main challenges is that her voting record is somewhat inscrutable to the left, leading some to say she is not liberal enough and others to say she is too liberal. The conflicting perceptions don't bother Republicans, who invoke her name to scare off support for Democratic candidates in competitive red state races or moderate battleground districts like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"She has to be careful and the party has to be careful about how they can use her politically," Terry Madonna, public affairs professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "But she doesn't seem to be in a lot of trouble with her own members."
To be sure, Pelosi's popularity gets mixed measures. In a June Gallup/USA Today poll, 31 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of Pelosi, while 29 percent said they had an unfavorable view and 27 percent said they had never heard of her.
A June poll conducted under BlogPAC auspices for the Yearly Kos convention of Democratic Web loggers found that Pelosi fared much better among "progressive" activists who responded, winning 75 percent favorability, with 29 percent strongly liking Pelosi. Sixteen percent thought unfavorably of Pelosi in the e-mail poll of 1,936 members, or 7 percent, of Moveon.org's membership who returned the survey.
"I like Pelosi, she gets it and is willing to listen to the ideas and complaints of the blogosphere. She coined the phrase 'culture of corruption' and it resonates because it is accurate," said Dave Johnson, founder and principal author of SeeingtheForest.com.
Johnson said bloggers are torn about Pelosi. A spirited online debate is taking place about whether she fights back enough against Republican attacks and whether her leadership is helping or hurting the party ahead of this and future elections.
"The problem is that she has to be the leader of a diverse group that ranges from the most liberal to the most conservative Democrats who represent red districts, and this hampers her ability to put out a strong progressive position. I think this is where many bloggers complain, because she isn't consistently out there with a strong liberal position, but I think it is because she can't be," Johnson said.
Both critics and defenders have suggested that Pelosi has a problem with delivery. She is often judged not on her ability to unify and lead the Democratic caucus, but on how she gives a speech or performs in press interviews.
"Even Democrats find themselves wincing when Pelosi appears on camera, perpetually wide-eyed and on-message, whatever the message may be," Amy Sullivan wrote in the May issue of Washington Monthly. "And that leads reporters to airbrush [Democrats'] tactical successes out of news reports."
Those tactical successes are notable, Sullivan wrote. She credited Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid with keeping Democrats on the same page to deflate President Bush's Social Security reform effort earlier this year as well as with turning the tide away from the president's handling of Iraq and toward public willingness to let Democrats take a crack at managing the situation.
Some Democratic activists say Pelosi is not to blame for the seeming inconsistencies within the party. They say she cannot be the "face" of a party that still hasn't defined a cogent message going into the November election.
"To hold Pelosi to a standard, or to suggest that she is not the one to lead the party … it's shortsighted," said liberal activist and columnist Byron Williams. He argues the party has not yet distinguished itself on the war in Iraq and hasn't convinced voters it would be different with Democrats in power.
"I think that is the conundrum they are in, whoever is leading the party," said Williams.
"The fact that Democrats themselves have no message on Iraq is not [Pelosi's] fault," said David Sirota, a Democratic activist and author of the book, "Hostile Takeover." It doesn't help either, he said, that Democrats who share the spotlight don’t always share the same agenda.
"There is a faction of the Democratic Party that has consistently capitulated to Republicans and I don’t think that is her fault," said Sirota. "That is a challenge to her."
Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran and Democrat who narrowly lost a special election last year in the heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District in Ohio, said he thinks some bloggers have falsely accused Pelosi of being wobbly on the issues.
"I think she's kind of feisty," Hackett said. "I think she's done a decent job."
He notes that "there are some issues where she is not liberal enough in my book," but added, "you're not always going to make everyone happy."
Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for Pelosi, said she believes that GOP sources are trying to stir up uncertainty about the minority leader's standing in her party to keep voters off-balance about a Democratic majority.
"I think Republicans are trying to make her a target because they know she is effective," said Crider. As for complaints from the left, "[Pelosi] respects their input. She understands their job is to be impatient and to keep agitating. She just has a different role in Congress."
Bob Benenson, editor of Congressional Quarterly, said it is not the role of the House minority leader to inspire voters through speeches and television appearances. She is, however, responsible for bringing members together behind a common cause in the House, and on that front, she has been pretty successful.
"They have much more party unity than they have ever had before," Benenson said.
"It seems like there is this perennial desire among Democratic activists and partisans to find the magic figure who will project their message to the rest of the world. In the best of all possible worlds you might say the leadership figure in the Congress should be the best spokesman but that is not always the case," he added.