Union Tribune

November 17, 2002 

House leadership choices widen ideological divide


WASHINGTON With their leaders chosen, House Republicans
and Democrats have set the stage for a classic partisan
showdown that could complicate each party's quest to attract
moderate voters.

By choosing Rep. Nancy Pelosi as their leader, House Democrats
risk associating their party with her San Francisco constituents,
whose support for gay rights and welfare subsidies is at odds
with many Americans.

Last week, House Republicans reached to the right by making
Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas the majority leader. Republicans could
face the problem of being stereotyped as take-no-prisoners
right-wingers out of step with President Bush's call for
compassionate conservatism.

"(DeLay and Pelosi) are a matched bookend pair," said Bruce
Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas. "They
seem to be caricatures of their own parties."

Despite pledges from both about seeking bipartisanship, their
promotions contrast with polls that show that many Americans
believe Congress engages in too much partisan rancor. Some
analysts worry that the selections could increase voter
estrangement from politics.

"It could exacerbate it if it were possible to exacerbate it
beyond current levels," said David Rhode, a political scientist at
Michigan State University. "Both (DeLay and Pelosi) are
representative of the dominant factions within their parties.
Since those factions are far apart, the leaders are far apart. That
potentially will have an effect on voter calculations."

With both parties already thinking ahead to the election in 2004,
strategists, including Pelosi and DeLay, will be carefully
targeting their appeals to attract suburban moderates and
independents, including so-called "soccer moms" who view
electoral choices through the prism of their family interests.

"The easiest way for Republicans to drive away soccer moms is
to appear to be lacking in compassion, intolerant, bigoted,
narrow-minded," said John Green, a political expert at the
University of Akron. "The easiest way for Democrats to drive
soccer moms away is to appear to be profligate and culturally

However, veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black praised
Pelosi, saying, "She's going to be a very good spokeswoman.
Everybody is jumping to the conclusion that because she has a
really liberal record she will be out there spouting liberal ideas
that aren't popular. I kind of doubt that."

Rep. Richard Armey of Texas, who is retiring as Republican
leader, argued that DeLay won a reputation as an unbending,
bare-knuckles infighter because of his former position as the
House GOP whip. Working under Armey, DeLay was responsible
for rounding up votes for GOP bills.

"To some extent, I think you will see Tom leaving behind the
behavior imperatives of that office and moving to embrace those
of another office," Armey said.

At the same time, the impact of both new leaders will be diluted
by their need to share the spotlight. DeLay, in particular, is
outranked by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and, ultimately, by
President Bush.

Initially, Pelosi is likely to command more attention than her
Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, because she is
the first woman to hold a top leadership post in Congress.
Eventually, her exposure and influence will diminish as her
party's presidential candidates come into sharper focus.

For the time being, some partisans on both sides of the aisle say
they think that their opponents have offered up an inviting
target and are making plans to exploit it.

For DeLay and the Republicans, that could be especially risky
given Pelosi's political skills, telegenic appeal and emergence as
a role model for women in politics.

"(Republicans) may have to pause and take a moment and think
about how they're going to approach dealing with a formidable
new leader," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for
American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "This is a
new dynamic and they're going to have to try to figure out how
to handle that. But I think that just writing her off as a liberal is a
big mistake."