A very effective Minority Leader

A VERY EFFECTIVE MINORITY LEADER…. Yesterday, the New York Times editorial board argued that outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D) skill-set doesn’t match up well with the responsibilities of a House Minority Leader. The piece neglected to mention that Pelosi already served — and thrived — in the exact same position before becoming Speaker.

Today, the Washington Monthly is featuring a gem from our archives: an Amy Sullivan piece from May 2006 on the often-brilliant strategies employed by then-Minority Leader Pelosi.

In the winter of 2005, Bush unveiled his Social Security privatization plan, the domestic centerpiece of his second term. The president invested a tremendous amount of personal political capital in the effort, featuring it in his 2005 State of the Union address and holding carefully choreographed town meetings to simulate public support for the idea.

Most of the press corps expected the debate to be a painful defeat for Democrats. Not only were moderates predicted to jump ship and join with Republicans to support the president’s plan, but Social Security — one of the foundational blocks of the New Deal social compact — would be irrevocably changed. But then a funny thing happened. Reid and Pelosi managed to keep the members of their caucuses united in opposition. Day after day they launched coordinated attacks on Bush’s “risky” proposal. Without a single Democrat willing to sign on and give a bipartisanship veneer of credibility, the private accounts plan slowly came to be seen by voters for what it was: another piece of GOP flimflam.

As the privatization ship began sinking, Republicans challenged Democrats to develop their own plan, and when none was forthcoming, pundits whacked the minority party for being without ideas. But not putting forth a plan was the plan. It meant that once the bottom fell out on public support for Bush’s effort — which it did by early summer — Democrats couldn’t be pressured to work with Republicans to form a compromise proposal. It was a brilliant tactical maneuver that resulted in a defeat at least as decisive as the Republicans’ successful effort to kill Clinton’s health-care plan.

Also note the great anecdote in the piece about Pelosi helping orchestrate then- Rep. Jack Murtha’s (D-Pa.) announcement calling for a troop withdrawal from Iraq. She took heat in the press, but behind the scenes, Pelosi executed a careful plan very well.

All of this is relevant now, of course, as Pelosi makes the transition, Rayburn-style, from Speaker back to Minority Leader. But the point that hasn’t been gotten much play this week is that Pelosi really excelled in this job, and positioned her caucus for an unlikely majority in 2006.

I’ll gladly concede that Pelosi is not the party’s most effective talk-show guest or public speaker. There’s something to be said, however, for an accomplished lawmaker with tremendous leadership skills, behind-the-scenes know-how, and a tactical understanding of how best to use the process.

Pelosi, in other words, was a Minority Leader who knew what she was doing. I know that’s the kind of quality that seems unimportant lately, but here’s hoping the Democratic caucus doesn’t forget it.