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Pay it Forward

The Dems' karmic dilemma

HOURS AFTER Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as House speaker last week, Democratic Representative Rahm Emanuel held a celebratoryreception at Johnny's Half Shell, an upscale Capitol Hill restaurant. Having just overseen his party's victorious campaign aschairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Emanuel resembled a mafia don who had taken down a rival family andwas now receiving visitors (Harold Ickes, Paul Begala, James Carville) to kiss his ring. Filing into the restaurant along with the giddy Democrats, however, was a crowd with markedly longer faces. These were Republicans attending a reception for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, he of the newly deposed Republican majority, in a private back room. From afar, the reception's mood seemed funereal, perhaps because attendees were forced to walk directly past a wall-mounted flat-screen television tuned to C-SPAN, which was displaying Democratic Representative Barney Frank presiding over House proceedings from the speaker's chair for the first time in twelve years.

The Democrats in attendance graciously pretended not to notice the bereaved in their midst. It couldn't have been easy. Heady with victory, Democrats are feeling feistier and cockier than they have in years. This headiness was symbolized earlier that day, when Democratic Representative Stephanie Tubbs-Jones of Ohio cast her vote to coronate Pelosi as speaker and then, with the whole Housewatching, broke out into a hip-hop jig known as the "cabbage patch"—a move that involves clasping one's hands and swinging one's arms as if churning butter. Such enthusiasm is understandable for Democrats, who waited more than a decade to regain power. Still, to some, turning the House floor into a dance floor sent a message of dubious taste. "You want to be magnanimous in victory,and then you see that," says a dismayed House Democratic leadership aide. "Show some class!"

Class is a question foremost on the minds of Democrats these days asthey obsess over their top goal: retaining their new majority. Although Democrats would love to kick Republicans while they're down, most agree with Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, Emanuel's successor at the DCCC, who says voters are longing for "a more civil tone." Retribution is out. Truth and reconciliation are in. The job of Van Hollen and others, then, is to convince their fellow Democrats to choose civility over civil war. But, for many, doing so involves an epic battle between superego and id, between reason and human nature, between the dignified handshake and the cabbage patch.

IN THE AFTERMATH of their November triumph, Democrats sounded positively liberated. Flush with the endorphins only an electoral mandate can bring, they were at last free to speak their minds. The tone was set by the now-infamous encounter between newly elected Democratic Senator Jim Webb and George W. Bush at the White House, in which Webb responded to the president's inquiry about his son in Iraq with a folksy fuck-off ("That's between me and my boy"). Then there was an epidemic of air rage, in which Democrats invaded hostile Fox TV territory to pummel conservatives—perhaps inspired by Bill Clinton's epic dress-down of Chris Wallace in a September interview. Leading the way was Frank, who ripped into Wallace for"an odd view of balance" and for asking questions "aimed at tryingto find points of controversy." He then appeared on "The O'ReillyFactor," where he denounced its host as a "silly would-be district attorney." (O'Reilly called Frank "dopey" in response.) Incoming Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, meanwhile, had a similar post-election duel with Fox's Sean Hannity, whom he addressed as"Mr. Prosecutor" while mocking Fox's "Fair and Balanced" slogan.

Democrats have also rediscovered the allure of raw power. After complaining for years about the way Republicans ran the legislative process in the House, Democrats announced that the new GOP minority would have no opportunity to offer bills or amendments as they ram through their "First 100 Hours" agenda—a hint that living up totheir solemn pledge to run the House in a more open fashion will be easier said than done. That's especially true given that some House Democrats believe in a Machiavellian approach. One of them is said to be George Miller of California, perhaps Pelosi's closest adviser. According to a recently departed House Democratic aide sympathetic to the leadership but in favor of open rules, Miller's people "don't give a shit about openness. They don't care about the process. Those guys really are interested in passing an agenda and wielding power."

Yet Democrats seem to understand that voters could easily perceive swaggering talk and strong-arm tactics as DeLayism, Bay Area-style."We think one of the messages sent in the last election is that thepublic expects a more open and fair process," says Van Hollen. Evensome of the House's most liberal members admit that tone matters,too. "We know we won in part because [Republicans] got so nasty andunlikable," Frank himself recently admitted to The New York Times—a guideline that apparently escaped the cranky representative during his recent TV appearances.

STILL, THE IMPULSE for payback is easy to understand. In 2003, I wrote a story about the misery of being a Democrat in the GOP House, which had come to operate with all the parliamentary freedom of the North Korean Communist Party (see "Oppressed Minority," June 23, 2003). My subject was Van Hollen, whom I followed for a few days as he tried in vain to secure a vote on an amendment critical to his civil service worker constituents. After one summary rejection, Van Hollen suggested that Republicans should bring democracy to the House before imposing it on Iraq. (Miller fumed to me at the time that the GOP was running the House in a "fascistic" and "corrupt" manner.)

Republicans aren't making it easier for Democrats to forgive and forget these traumatic memories by screaming bloody murder over any perceived slight. Although Democrats have vowed to make several rules changes affording the minority more power, the House GOP has already shamelessly offered up a "Minority Bill of Rights"—copied verbatim from a 2004 Democratic proposal (which the GOP ignored). Democrats found it especially maddening to hear a complaint last week from California Republican David Dreier, who, as outgoing chairman of the House Rules Committee, smothered countless Democratic bills and amendments in their cribs. Dreier pronounced himself "very disappointed" at the lack of a GOP role in the 100-hour agenda. "I couldn't believe my ears," sighs Louise Slaughter of New York, Dreier's incoming successor as Rules chair. "If Alice in Wonderland can believe six impossible things before breakfast, David Dreier can do better."

Such talk can hardly boost the Democratic spirit of magnanimity, which was fragile to begin with. As head of the DCCC, Van Hollen must suppress vengeful instincts in the name of preserving his party's precious majority, but he admits he recently flipped through my old article and reminisced about his cold dismissal by imperious Republican leaders—or, as he puts it, "sitting in front of the Rules Committee and getting the big "nyet.'" Still, he insists, using a familiar Pelosi phrase, "We're not interested in getting even. We're interested in moving forward." But maybe also throwing in a cabbage patch or two.

This article appeared in the January 22, 2007 issue of the magazine.