To some, the "shellacking" of Democrats at the ballot box last week was nearly as much a referendum on Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the lightning-rod speaker of the House, as it was on her party. According to an analysis by CNN, $65 million was spent on campaign ads attacking the speaker, mostly by Republicans trying to tie their Democratic opponents to her. Polls put her approval rating around 29%. So when she announced that she would not relinquish power — she will seek the post of House minority leader — it provoked dismay among some in her own party and glee from many Republicans, who see her decision as proof that Democrats still don't understand the reasons for their defeat.
Are Democrats, who presumably will give Pelosi the post, making a tactical mistake? When the ideologically opposed editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times agree that they are, it's a good indicator of trouble. But we're not convinced.
Many Republicans claim that Democrats lost control of the House because of voter disgust with Pelosi's high-handed ways and the policies she rammed through Congress. That doesn't seem likely. By approving healthcare reform and imposing tighter regulations on Wall Street, Democrats delivered precisely the "change" they promised two years ago, when they were wildly popular. Meanwhile, although the government's economic stimulus strategy has helped engineer a slow turnaround for the economy, it hasn't reduced joblessness, so it's hardly surprising that the party in power took a beating. That's not a good reason to dump Pelosi. The fact that she is despised by conservatives isn't either — in fact, it's probably a tribute to her skills as speaker.
One cogent argument for Pelosi to step down posits that she did a poor job of selling Democratic policies to the electorate. Yet Pelosi, the first female speaker, has been extraordinarily effective as a legislative leader and fundraiser, shepherding through historic reforms amid solid GOP opposition. Getting such legislation passed is her job — drumming up public approval for it is not. That role properly falls to the Democrats' spokesman in chief, President Obama.
Obama himself has acknowledged this, saying the election taught him that leadership isn't just about passing bills but "making an argument that people can understand." Judged solely by her record, and not by GOP attacks trying to paint her as either a Leninist or the Wicked Witch of the West, Pelosi deserves to stay on as her party's leader.