Who wins a congressional leadership battle that never happens?
Michele Bachmann, preparing to challenge establishment Rep. Jeb Hensarling for the position of GOP Conference Chair (the fourth-ranking House leadership position), bowed out with conciliatory words after a week of politicking. Outgoing Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, set to challenge outgoing Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to remain whip and vault himself to the number two spot in the minority, conceded after being offered a newly-invented third-ranking leadership spot. The one race that will happen, for the position of Minority Leader, might as well not; by all accounts, including his own, Nancy Pelosi will paste inexperienced North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler.
Pelosi, Hensarling and Hoyer will, to varying degrees, consider themselves victors. For far different reasons, however, Shuler, Bachmann and Clyburn can rest assured that, at the very least, they did not emerge losers.
For Shuler — swept into Congress during the wave that propelled Democrats into their post-2006 majorities — a lost cause leadership bid makes all the sense in the world. Representing the roughly evenly-partisan 11th district in North Carolina, Shuler can only gain by standing up to Pelosi. Despite — or because of — her impressive record as House leader, Pelosi is seen by progressives and conservatives alike as a liberal icon, with moderate voters viewing her skeptically. Publicly stating his desire to lead “a very moderate caucus,” Shuler can only benefit by being able to answer constituent concerns regarding his fellow Democrats with the assurance that he alone among his caucus opposed his party’s leadership.
With post-2010 redistricting on the horizon, Shuler may very well find his re-election prospects an uphill battle, and he’ll need any edge he can get. being able to frame himself nationally as the anti-Pelosi will certainly help. Ironically, one of the worst consequences of the leadership battle for Shuler would be victory; a national profile and leadership of an increasingly-progressive Democratic caucus would likely serve as a millstone around his neck.
Clyburn, by averting what would have been a fierce — and in all probabilities futile — fight against Hoyer, proved himself again as a political survivor. After the 2006 elections, Clyburn managed to fend off the ambitions of Rahm Emanuel and maintain his third position in the caucus. Losing Clyburn — before Obama’s election, the most important elected black political leader in the country — would have been a blow to the party. Though the lion’s share of the credit for the legislative accomplishments of the 11th Congress is justifiably to be laid at Pelosi’s feet, as Majority Whip Clyburn played the crucial role of vote-counter in a caucus divided between progressives and more-conservative Blue Dogs.
It would be a mistake to view the creation of an extra leadership seat for Clyburn as farcical. There is ample precedent for the maneuver, most recently following the 2006 election within the Senate. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, following an historic tenure as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), needed a spot in the leadership commensurate with his influence. Democratic leaders, not wanting to displace Conference Secretary Patty Murray, named Schumer Vice Chair of the party conference — an honor that would be empty if not for the importance and natural authority of its holder. It is through this lens that Clyburn’s new position should be viewed.
Bachmann is to be considered the most embarrassed of any of the spurned leadership hopefuls. The subject of last week’s ‘Worst Week in Washington” feature in the Washington Post for the quickness of her about-face, Bachmann nevertheless broke crucial ground for her personal brand. For a week, Bachmann — long seen by most of her fellow GOP colleagues as a “liability” — was taken seriously as a potential authority figure. Her candidacy also turned Hensarling, who boasts the second highest rating from the National Taxpayer’s Union in the entire House, into the candidate of the mainstream, itself an accomplishment.
Previously a sideshow, Bachmann will now find herself a crucial voice in legislative conversations, a possibility that many would have seen as laughable — or apocalyptic — just weeks ago. Challenging senior figures will likely have zero negative repercussions for Bachmann, Clyburn and Shuler, especially if Democrats fail to regain the majority during the next election cycle. Tangible victories may have been hard to find for non-establishment figures, but following midterm contests that guaranteed two years of political gridlock and grandstanding in lieu of further law making, these symbolic victories may very well hold more meaning.