The Odd Couple

Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, old-fashioned Democrats, have the charge—but so far few signs of the ability—to sell their party to America

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.

Pelosi, too, has political smarts and survival skills. She grew up steeped in Democratic politics—her father was a ward boss in Baltimore's Little Italy before being elected mayor, and in her office is a picture of her as a teenager meeting John F. Kennedy. Pelosi moved to California with her husband and rose through the ranks of state politics, winning her seat in Congress at the age of forty-seven. While Reid was honing his tactical skills, Pelosi excelled at the very different though equally important political skill of fundraising. She, too, served as a second-in-command, as whip to the House leader Dick Gephardt. In 2002 Gephardt broke with most of his party and supported the Republican resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war against Iraq. Pelosi broke with her boss and rallied a majority of her anti-war colleagues behind an amendment requiring the administration to seek congressional authorization for the use of force. The amendment failed, but Pelosi was popular enough that when Gephardt retired, soon afterward, she was virtually unchallenged for his job.

Since the two assumed the leadership things have not gotten better for their party, and some observers blame them, not just Republican strength. "The problems Democrats face communicating with people start at the top," says Charlie Cook, the political handicapper and author of The Cook Political Report. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the pair's rebuttal to Bush's State of the Union speech in January, for which they were widely panned as ineffectual. Cook dubbed them a "vapid response team" and added, "The Democratic Party is taking so many hits for being the party of the trial lawyers yet seems unable to make a convincing case of its own."

Though Pelosi and Reid appear placidly confident that the Democrats will soon win back Congress, neither seems able to say quite how that will happen. Rather, they profess faith that if they simply counter Republican initiatives, voters will plainly see that the Democrats should be returned to power. "I'm not much into role-playing," Reid replied when I asked about his ability to lead a comeback. "I'll just do my job here and see what happens." Pelosi bases her belief in the inevitability of a Republican downfall on historical precedent: in the midterm elections of a president's sixth year (which Bush reaches next year) his party typically loses congressional seats. "There is an average loss of twenty-eight or twenty-nine [House] seats for the sitting president's party," she points out. "We don't go by history, but the fact is that it is in our favor." If that pattern holds true in 2006, the loss will be more than enough to put the Democrats in the majority and make Pelosi the first-ever female speaker.

But analysts consider it a virtual certainty that the pattern won't hold true. As the country has grown more polarized, the number of competitive seats has plummeted, and with it a minority party's chance of sparking a sudden turnaround. The National Committee for an Effective Congress, which analyzes electoral data, reports that the number of close races dropped from 117 in 1994 to just thirty-four last November. In fact, the most recent president to reach a sixth year—Bill Clinton—saw his party gain seats.

Pelosi and Reid's laissez-faire attitude doesn't square with the fact that voters not only re-elected a Republican president but also boosted Republican majorities in Congress. Absent a GOP scandal or an economic collapse of epic proportions, the Democrats will have to draw the electoral equivalent of a straight flush to have any shot at breaking out of minority status in 2006. Most experts believe that they won't seriously contend for the House until 2012 at the earliest.

This grim scenario makes the Democrats' choice of leaders somewhat puzzling. Reid and Pelosi both apprenticed as whip, a job that requires corralling and cajoling fellow congressmen to support the party line. But circumstances now demand Democratic leaders who can win outside Congress. That will require abandoning the party line for a new course, which Reid and Pelosi are unequipped to do. Many members of Congress say privately that the real energy and tactical smarts in the party are concentrated in two recent arrivals, Representative Rahm Emanuel, of Illinois, and Senator Charles Schumer, of New York—both of them rising in party ranks and estimation.

Pelosi and Reid embody the travails of the Democratic Party in Congress as it continues the difficult transition to effective minority status after decades in power. When one has been in power for a long time, the object is simply to stay put, and trusting in patience and historical inevitability makes sense. Pelosi and Reid were trained as curators. Their party needs revolutionaries.