Knowing when to hold your tongue

With Republicans frantically rushing to repair their image in the
face of budding scandals, the jubilation of Democrats has been muted by
concerns over their own House leadership — namely, Nancy Pelosi. Key
minority members are growing more uncomfortable daily with their floor
leader’s seeming inability to set a positive tone.

They should
be. The feisty California liberal’s almost-daily rants against the GOP
and the White House have left her colleagues wondering if it isn’t time
to find someone who sees gray as well as black-and-white and has a
better sense of timing. A perfect example of Pelosi’s slam-bam approach
came in her reaction to former House Republican leader Tom DeLay’s
announcement that he would not seek to regain his old position once his
legal troubles are over — if they ever are.

At a time when all
Democrats had to do was to sit back and let the Republicans stew in
their own adverse publicity and disorganization, Pelosi typically
couldn’t resist a sledgehammer swing that was more DeLay than DeLay, a
smash-mouth aggressiveness that was utterly unnecessary with more
potential of uniting the opposition than dividing it.

years, at the expense of the American people, the House Republicans
have enabled and benefited from the Republican culture of corruption
engineered by Tom DeLay,” she screeched in a typical indictment of
everything and everyone GOP. “The culture of corruption is so pervasive
in the Republican conference that a single person stepping down is not
nearly enough to clean up the Republican Congress.”

In other
words, folks, there is no one on the GOP side of the aisle who isn’t
corrupt and unworthy of leadership, so she is serving notice she won’t
work with whomever replaces DeLay. That, of course, includes those who
have been in an interim leadership role since DeLay stepped aside to
deal with Texas state charges that he violated fund-raising laws. Now
his fund-raising and heavy-handed insistence on unflinching loyalty to
the GOP from high-rolling special interests with at least a hint of
legislative favoritism as a reward appear to have caught him in the
mother of all federal lobbying scandals.

Pelosi couldn’t resist
tying what she called the GOP “culture of corruption” to “higher home
heating costs, increased pharmaceutical costs and an out-of-control
deficit,” as if her own party had no hand in these events and actually
had provided positive solutions to the problems.

It was a
shoot-from-the-hip performance that has become all too familiar on
Capitol Hill, where the atmosphere has all the civility of the
pre-Civil War period, when there was a constant threat of violence _
physical as well as verbal. DeLay can take much credit for his
encouragement of intolerance for anything but strict obedience to GOP
policy and ideology and his use of financial aid as a bludgeon. On the
other hand, longtime observers note that former Speaker Sam Rayburn,
backed up by a tough seniority system and big majorities, frequently
demanded adherence to Democratic policy. So what’s new? Perhaps it is
only the tone.

Sadly, Pelosi seems to have missed an opportunity
to mute the angry politics of the day with a kinder and gentler
approach, to borrow a phrase from one of her nemeses, former President
George H.W. Bush. More time spent on developing Democratic initiatives
and less on trying to shoot down Republican ones in the harshest
rhetoric would help. As the first woman ever to hold such a prestigious
post, she seemed always to be trying to prove she can be just as tough
as any man. It is a waste of her considerable talent. If Republicans,
when they assumed control of Congress in 1995, had been a bit more
forgiving of the 40 years of Democratic autocracy and extreme
partisanship, everyone would have profited.

The truth of the
matter is that bipartisanship always is hard to come by in this system.
But it has no chance without at least some spirit of compromise, and
that can’t be achieved by name-calling. DeLay helped engineer the coup
that ousted the architect of the Republican revolution, former Speaker
Newt Gingrich, and now he is getting his comeuppance. The opposition
should watch the spectacle in quiet. There is little benefit in doing

Unless Pelosi develops a better feel for when to be
tough and when to ease off, her chances of moving up to the speaker’s
chair if her party is returned to power or to even retain her current
post could be severely diminished. Being a leader often means being
above the fray.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)