Maybe Someone Needs to Go
If a football coach – say for the Dallas Cowboys – had the kind of season that the leader of House Democrats has had they would be looking for work. But, politics ain’t football, obviously.
Eight games into the season, the Cowboys tied the can to coach Wade Phillips. Someone had to be held accountable. This is the big time, after all. The final straw was the Cowboys’ 45-7 drubbing by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Sorry Wade. You are the responsible party. It’s been nice knowing ya.
Nancy Pelosi suffered a loss just as lopsided, just as devastating to an historic franchise, but with no commensurate accountability. Pelosi’s decision to serve as House Minority Leader when Republicans take the majority in January is at once a testament to her determination as a political infighter and an indication of just how out of touch she is as a leader of a national party.
In fairness to Pelosi, she is going to get a demotion, but she’d be doing her party and herself a favor by stepping off the political stage entirely. For all kinds of reasons, Pelosi, the liberal Democrat from San Francisco, has become the unpopular face of Washington, D.C. Conservatives are rejoicing that she will stay as the party leader in the House. Her continuation in leadership will be both a distraction for Democrats and a gift to those who have succeeded in making her the principle issue in many races, including the First District of Idaho, where she served as a deadly drain on moderate Democrats.
I’ve been reading a fascinating new book – Churchill Defiant – by Barbara Leaming that focuses on the career of the great British Prime Minister after World War II. Churchill lost a crushing re-election campaign in 1945 just as the Allies had secured the long, hard victory over Nazi Germany. Churchill was badly hurt by the repudiation of the English people and, as anyone would, he took the defeat very personally.
Like the Minority Leader-in-Waiting, Winston insisted in staying on as leader of his party despite the opposition, some of it very open and nasty, of most senior Conservatives. Churchill’s health and even mental abilities, as Leaming carefully and sympathetically shows, were sharply in decline, but still the great man held on. Churchill, again like most of us, infused with basic human motivations, simply couldn’t abide the notion of stepping down. His wife wanted him to, his friends and political associates thought it best, but he held on.
In 1951, Churchill finally recaptured Downing Street, more because of the ineptness of the Labour Party than any other reason, but at age 77 he had become a shadow of what the British electorate and the world had come to expect. Leaming gives Churchill credit for being a fighter, but mostly he was fighting the inevitable decline of the British Empire and clinging to the idea of personal power no matter the cost.
Understanding basic human instincts, it’s easy to see why Nancy Pelosi wants to stay. She has been caricatured, at times in an unfair and truly vicious manner, as the Cruella de Vil of the Democratic Party and she clearly doesn’t want to be shown the door by her political enemies. She passed historic, if hugely controversial, legislation and understandly wants to protect it from the long knives of her opponents. And, while she will have a secure place in the history books as the first woman Speaker of the House, she simply can’t bring herself to walk off and leave the battle to others who will undoubtedly have a better chance to reconnect with the broad middle of the American electorate.
Nothing Winston Churchill did after his rejection at the polls in 1945 helped define him for the history books. Had he left public life at that moment, his enormous reputation, as arguably the greatest figure of the 20th Century, would have been secure. The famous Iron Curtain speech was made while Churchill was leading the opposition in the House of Commons. Had he delivered that speech as a private citizen it would have had just as much impact and who is to say that his warnings about Soviet domination of eastern Europe wouldn’t have had even more importance coming from a senior statesman with no personal agenda at stake.
Even the greatest leaders are driven by ego and the need for personal vindication. It is hard to known when to go.
The principled departure is something most American politicians have never embraced. It is a shame because it can have real power both for the person leaving and those left to carry on.