When Howard Dean crossed the stage to accept the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, at the group's meeting last February, beleaguered party members finally found reason to cheer. Dean was always the sentimental favorite—and seemed just the sort of pugnacious character necessary to lead the fight against George W. Bush. Those cheering Democrats haven't gotten what they wanted, though. So far Dean has concentrated on building the party's infrastructure, ceding the spotlight to a pair of congressional leaders who opposed his candidacy as chairman. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid are the Democrats' new public face.
Even in a party that prides itself on diversity they make an odd pair—a liberal from San Francisco and a red-state Mormon. Pelosi is pro-choice; Reid is pro-life. She grew up in Baltimore, the daughter and sister of mayors; he's from Searchlight, Nevada, the son of a miner. What they have in common is the task of leading the Democrats out of the wilderness. As Reid told me recently, sitting beside a fireplace in his ornate office in the Capitol, "The American people are looking for help. We're all they've got."
One debate among Democrats is whether or not this should be cause for alarm. Pelosi and Reid both maintain that they expect the Democrats to win back the House and the Senate next year, and after that the presidency. But their failure to manage their own party's chairmanship race, coupled with an aggressive Republican majority, has left many less sanguine. "Reid and Pelosi, along with [the former DNC chairman] Terry McAuliffe, were integrally involved in deciding the message and strategy in the last two elections, and we got our clock cleaned both times," says Dan Gerstein, a Capitol Hill veteran and former longtime aide to Senator Joe Lieberman. "They're both good people. But at some point it's got to come down to cold, hard results."
Despite botching their attempt to head off Dean, Pelosi and Reid have a better track record inside Congress, where they need to persuade only their own colleagues. They have so far maintained the caucus unity necessary to obstruct the administration's greatest ambitions, from Social Security privatization to the confirmation of right-wing judges.
For a party accustomed to consistent drubbing by the White House, the most heartening thing about Bush's second term is the uniformity with which most congressional Democrats have thus far opposed the Social Security initiative. By staking his political capital on privatizing Social Security, Bush has done the Democratic leadership the great favor of focusing national debate on a topic that—unlike tax cuts, tort reform, and the war in Iraq—divides his own party and unifies the Democrats.
The question is whether Pelosi and Reid can maintain that unity. The Republicans, their initial blitzkrieg rebuffed, now talk about a prolonged battle for privatization. And the two Democratic leaders will have to withstand the glare of national attention that will accompany what looks to be a historic showdown looming between the parties in Congress. Frustrated by Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, has threatened to invoke the so-called "nuclear option" and repeal the minority-empowering filibuster privilege. Reid, in turn, has promised to respond with parliamentary maneuvers that would essentially shut down the Senate.
If Pelosi and Reid are to win back Congress, they will need not only the discipline to counter Republican attacks but also the strategic ability to develop a true opposition movement—an ability nowhere evident in their biographies. And they will need to galvanize the public, not just their fellow officeholders. Here some alarm seems warranted. Put simply, Pelosi and Reid are lousy salespeople. Although Reid prides himself on rural authenticity, he comes across on television as a long-lost Smothers Brother. And for all her grandmotherly warmth, Pelosi's peppy bursts of enthusiasm and penchant for speaking in singsong phrases—"We've gotta win, not whine!"—make her come across like a cheerfully energetic PTA mom rather than a party leader capable of swaying national opinion.
History suggests that the most effective opposition leaders—Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Lyndon Johnson—tend to be bullies who relish pool-cue-to-the-knee politics and boast tough-guy nicknames like DeLay's "The Hammer." Harry Reid's nickname is "Pinky."
Reid ascended the ranks of the Democratic Party when it was strong, and his eventual arrival in the top spot was all but guaranteed. He has always prided himself on his humble origins. "My dad was a miner; my mother took in wash," he told me. "In my town of two hundred people we had as many as thirteen whorehouses, so that's whose wash she did." Reid worked his way through college. While there he married his high school sweetheart, Landra, and they joined the Mormon church. After graduating from law school he held a series of political jobs, eventually becoming chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. In the late 1970s Reid targeted the mob, and it reciprocated: his wife discovered her car rigged with a bomb (which the police defused), and the Reids spent a year starting the car by remote control. Reid went on to the House of Representatives and later to the Senate, where he positioned himself to one day lead the Democratic caucus—becoming an expert on the Senate's arcane rules and serving six years as whip under Tom Daschle. Daschle's defeat last November cleared the way for an easy rise.