The New York Observer posted an interesting piece last night on Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the leadership race between Jack Murtha (D-PA) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
It raises some issues about how exactly the race for majority leader came down. So first, here's a sampling (but go read the whole thing), and then I want to place this in the larger context of what we've been hearing from up on the Hill:
If, as expected, Mr. Murtha does go down to defeat on Thursday, the press, and Ms. Pelosiâs political tormenters, will have all the ammunition they need to tell the world that she miscalculated and overreachedâthat the new House leader is in over her head and has a perilously weak hold on her flock.
No matter what they say, though, the internal fallout will be minimal for Ms. Pelosi. She spotted Mr. Murthaâs bid for the lost cause it was and shied away from investing any real capital in it. And itâs not like her personal loyalty to Mr. Murthaâor her distrust of Mr. Hoyerâis a secret among House Democrats.
The big secret hereâat least outside the Capitolâis what an adept inside player the incoming Speaker actually is. Indeed, few seem to appreciate the singular position of dominance within the Democratic caucus into which she has masterfully maneuvered herself.
This account fits with what we've been hearing from multiple sources. Instead of pulling out all the stops to get Murtha elected, Pelosi had been content to sit on the sidelines, figuring that it was well known within the caucus that she preferred Murtha to Hoyer.
Then, apparently in response to Murtha's request, Pelosi sent out her letter of support over the weekend to newly elected Democratic House members. That letter set off a firestorm of news coverage, pegging the majority leader's race as the first test of Pelosi's leadership, all of which apparently came as a big surprise to Pelosi.
With the dynamics of the race suddenly shifted from simply Hoyer v. Murtha to a larger question of Pelosi's political strength and capabilities, she shifted her support for Murtha into overdrive, starting to make phone calls and twist arms. The problem is that it was probably too little, too late. (Actually, there are indications, as the Observer article suggests, that Murtha's candidacy had been a lost cause from the very beginning.)
Did Pelosi make a misjudgment?
Did she assume that her personal preference for Murtha and her long-standing personal rivalry with Hoyer was such common knowledge within the Democratic caucus that her letter for Murtha was only stating the obvious?
Did she not realize that, to a new crop of Democratic House members and to a public and press still getting acquainted with her, her support for Murtha would take on greater significance?
Few outside the Democratic caucus know of its inner workings, so all the public and press sees is Pelosi backing a losing candidate in her first act as Speaker. It's not a fatal misstep, but it does suggest that Pelosi is having to figure out that the talent she has for maneuvering inside the caucus, which has served her well, is a different skill set than the one required to lead the national Democratic Party, which is the position she is in now.
Here's hoping she gets that figured out soon.