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.

    “For
    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
    otherwise.

    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.)