Josh Kurtz: Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

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There is no understating the funk national Democrats are currently experiencing.

The irony is, national Republicans – despite their widespread triumphs on Election Day – aren’t faring much better.

Marylanders figure prominently in both tales of woe.

Topping the list of items contributing to the Democrats’ angst is the question of what happened to President Obama’s mojo – and will he ever get it back? But right behind that, Democrats in Washington are most flummoxed by soon-to-be ex-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to stay on as the top Democrat in the House, even with her party now condemned to the minority.

There are two ways to view Pelosi’s move – and the dismay it caused in so many corners.

On the one hand, Tommy D’Alessandro’s girl has more cojones than just about anyone else in the Democratic Party. It was Pelosi – not Obama, not Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – who powered through health care reform. It was Pelosi who was steadfast in her support for a robust stimulus and a financial reform bill with teeth, and Pelosi who pressed her caucus to pass an aggressive climate change bill.

You can quarrel with the policies. You can question the political wisdom of passing these measures. You can take issue with the messenger – which Republicans did, to the tune of $65 million in anti-Pelosi ads this election cycle, according to a nonpartisan media monitor. But there’s no denying this: Pelosi had a series of policy priorities and worked skillfully to get them through.

And even now, in the face of ruthless attacks, Pelosi is still up for the fight. A lesser political leader would have turned tail – oh wait, that’s what many Democrats have already done. Pelosi is to be commended for wanting to stick around. She’ll raise a lot of money for her party and run a very focused operation – and doing the latter will be easier now, with fewer moderates and conservatives in her caucus.

On the other hand … politics is all about optics. Pelosi is no more or less responsible for the Democrats’ Election Day fiasco than Obama and Reid, and they’re holding on to their power. Why should Pelosi yield hers?

Why? Because the Democrats lost 62 House seats (and counting), and someone must be held responsible. Because, when voters have told you they don’t like what you’re doing, you don’t keep doing it – and you don’t keep your leadership team intact.

Worse, you don’t feed an electorate hungry for change the same team of tired 70-year-olds who were in charge last time around. That doesn’t just show the public you don’t get it – it’s really bad for candidate recruitment.

If Democrats have any prayer of taking back the House majority soon, they’ve got to win in moderate and conservative districts in rural and suburban areas. A leadership line-up of Pelosi, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as minority whip and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) in some undefined role as assistant minority leader, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence or enthusiasm – in those districts especially. No wonder the Republicans are so ecstatic to see Pelosi stick around.

This last point is total inside baseball, but it resonates here in Maryland: Pelosi used the aftermath of the Election Day wipe-out to take a classless swipe at Hoyer: When she decided to run for minority leader, she – without saying a word publicly – essentially assembled a slate, with Clyburn as minority whip and Rep. John Larson of Connecticut as Democratic caucus chairman, bypassing Hoyer, who has been her No. 2, both in the minority and the majority, since 2003.

Hoyer and Pelosi have never completely trusted each other, but Hoyer has subsumed his own ambitions and been a loyal and effective deputy. The wonder is, the media focused almost immediately on the Hoyer vs. Clyburn fight for whip – white vs. black, Blue Dogs vs. Congressional Black Caucus, etc. – instead of Pelosi’s bloodless near-execution of her long-time foe Hoyer. And through it all, more than a few Capitol Hill observers have wondered: what does John Larson bring to the table, anyway?

On the question of Obama’s mojo, Democrats are increasingly pessimistic. Despite the obvious parallels to the Republican electoral romp of 1994, Obama is substantially different than Bill Clinton. Clinton was nimble and flexible; with no fixed ideology, and a very keen political radar, he was able to adapt to the times.

Obama, however, is looking more and more like Jimmy Carter, or Adlai Stevenson – good men, smart men, but men who lacked basic political survival instincts.

Looking ahead, the one thing Democrats may have going for them – naturally – is the Republicans. Because in spite of a remarkable string of victories up and down the ballot this month, Republicans don’t exactly know where they’re headed – or who is leading them.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans have perfected the art of saying no – and they’ll say it louder and stronger now that they’ve cut the Democrats’ majority to just six seats.

In the House, the GOP is now in control, and will be under pressure to advance its aggressive conservative agenda. But the incoming Speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who once was so bipartisan he crafted education legislation with Ted Kennedy, not only has to deal with 80-plus new members, many of whom come from the most extreme elements of his party, but with lieutenants in leadership with very little loyalty to him. He’ll have to watch his back all the time. It won’t be pretty.

As would-be Republican presidential nominees prepare to mobilize, they have to deal with the landmine that is Sarah Palin. She dominates the media, speaks in almost messianic terms, and has highly energized disciples. Will she seek the nomination? Can she win? There is a shadowy group of Republican insiders that fervently hope she doesn’t and is working to prevent it from happening.

But other presidential contenders can’t be a part of that effort, publicly or privately – and must, in fact, kow-tow to Palin and her supporters. It is a dangerous place for a candidate to be, and a perilous position for the party as well.

Finally, and bringing it all back home, there is the saga of Michael Steele, who may or may not seek a second term as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

If election results were the only criteria for Steele’s re-election, he’d be a shoo-in. Unfortunately for Steele and his partisans, they’re not – Steele has a lot of dysfunction to answer for. Many of the same GOP powerbrokers who are now quietly arraying against Palin are doing so a lot more publicly against Steele.

Even in his early political career in Maryland, Steele was a realist and a pretty good head counter. So he must know that winning another term at the RNC is a long shot, and that a lot of blood will have to be shed for him to do so.

On the other hand, getting back to the topic of political optics, Steele knows it doesn’t look good for a bunch of Republican leaders to be shoving the party’s first African-American chairman to the door. So there’s a pound of flesh to be extracted here, and Steele seems determined to get it. Of all the gifts Barack Obama has presented to Steele during his tenure at the RNC, this may be the greatest of all.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood

Taylor-Made

Black and Blue?

Slugfest

Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.