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November 13, 2006
The Politics Of The Personal

Nancy Pelosi surprised political analysts by injecting herself into an intraparty fight over the House leadership position. Despite Steny Hoyer's efforts to win the midterms as Minority Leader, Pelosi endorsed John Murtha to replace him in the majority. Her first effort as Speaker-elect gives a preview of Pelosi's leadership style and the importance of personal relationships over political pragmatism:

House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) yesterday as the next House majority leader, thereby stepping into a contentious intraparty fight between Murtha and her current deputy, Maryland's Steny H. Hoyer.

The unexpected move signaled the sizable value Pelosi gives to personal loyalty and personality preferences. Hoyer competed with her in 2001 for the post of House minority whip, while Murtha managed her winning campaign. Pelosi has also all but decided she will not name the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) to chair that panel next year, a decision pregnant with personal animus.

Pelosi had been outspoken about her frustration with Murtha's declaration that he would challenge Hoyer, currently the House minority whip, for the majority leader post long before Democrats had secured the majority. Many believed she would remain on the sidelines, just as Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did earlier this year when three Republicans vied for the post of House majority leader.

But in her first real decision as the incoming speaker, Pelosi said she was swayed by Murtha's early stance for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Her letter of endorsement yesterday made clear that she sees Iraq as the central issue of the next Congress and that she believes a decorated Marine combat veteran at the helm of the House caucus would provide Democrats ammunition in their fight against congressional Republicans and President Bush on the issue.

It's a mistake for Republicans to consider this a battle between liberals and moderates. Murtha wants an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and has the backing of the netroots, but he supports gun rights and opposes abortion. Hoyer wants to keep the Democrats from being the party of retreat, but he supports the more liberal planks in the Democratic platform. Ideology has much less to do with this than personal ties between Pelosi and Murtha, which seems to have trumped the normal detachment that Speakers at least attempt when it comes to party politics.

That personal relationship springs from Pelosi's own bid for party leadership, but isn't limited to it. Murtha ran her campaign for Minority Leader, lending her his prestige and his legendary power gained through years of work in the Appropriations committee. That power also gave Pelosi a more substantial remuneration, as Roll Call noted last year (via The Astute Blogger):

Republican lawmakers say that ties between Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and his brother's lobbying firm, KSA Consulting, may warrant investigation by the House ethics committee...

According to a June 13 article in The Los Angeles Times, the fiscal 2005 defense appropriations bill included more than $20 million in funding for at least 10 companies for whom KSA lobbied. Carmen Scialabba, a longtime Murtha aide, works at KSA as well. KSA directly lobbied Murtha's office on behalf of seven companies, and a Murtha aide told a defense contractor that it should retain KSA to represent it, according to the LA Times.

In early 2004, Murtha reportedly leaned on U.S. Navy officials to sign a contract to transfer the Hunters Point Shipyard to the city of San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A company called Lennar Inc. had right to the land, and Laurence Pelosi, nephew to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was an executive with the firm at that time.

In other words, Pelosi owes Murtha for the boost to family fortunes. She's merely repaying the debt. This should raise eyebrows on both sides of the aisle, especially since Pelosi successfully ran an election by decrying the "culture of corruption" in Republican ranks. The power of earmarks to distort American politics raises its ugly head once more, and voters who somehow thought they elected a cleaner government will understand that they put porkers in charge of the trough once again.

And the shift makes no sense at all, following as it does a successful midterm election. Hoyer provided the leadership for that victory, at least in part, and Murtha probably presented more of a drag than a sail. Pelosi's openness to change in this instance undermines the argument for electing her as Speaker. If pre-election leadership doesn't carry any significance for post-election leadership positions, then why make Pelosi speaker? Why not select someone who represents the centrists that gave Democrats the majority rather than the Bay area liberals that Pelosi represents?

Pelosi should have stayed out of the fray. It may turn into a Pandoa's box that she would have been better advised to leave closed. If she loses, she's damaged goods right from the start.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 13, 2006 6:09 AM

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