There's only one thing dumber in politics than picking a fight when you don't have to; it's picking one when you can't win. That's why pretty much everyone in Washington is mystified by Nancy Pelosi. Through a midterm-election campaign in which Republicans had tried to caricature her as a fuzzy-headed and dangerous San Francisco liberal, she succeeded in keeping the focus on them. And the first woman Speaker-to-be was pitch-perfect in the euphoric days that followed the Democrats' big win. She said the right things, and she did the right things, like quietly reshuffling her ranks to avoid a showdown between Rahm Emanuel, the campaign-committee chief who delivered her majority, and James Clyburn, a senior member of the black caucus. Even the arrival of her sixth grandchild seemed auspiciously timed to remind everyone of her motherly side. Yet before many Democrats across the country had even taken down their yard signs, Pelosi decided to step on her own coronation by turning what would otherwise have been an all-but-ignored secret ballot for majority leader into a gang war. Instead of quietly accepting that her rival Steny Hoyer would continue to be her second in command, she threw herself into a fierce and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for John Murtha, an old friend whose ethics didn't seem to match Pelosi's talk of a new day in Congress.
All that raised a lot of new questions about Pelosi herself--about her judgment, her political instincts and her real ideology. Was her endorsement of longtime ally John Murtha over Hoyer a testament to her loyalty or proof that she is incapable of letting go of old grudges? Was putting her muscle behind the hero of the party's antiwar wing a sign that she would steer her fractious and fragile coalition over the guardrails on the left? Did her support for a man who is notorious for slipping special-interest earmarks into spending bills prove that she didn't really mean all that talk about cleaning up Congress? In other words, was Nancy Pelosi really up to the job?
• THE FALLOUT
Pelosi will have to answer those questions with her actions in the months ahead. "It was a serious misstep and inexplicable to me," former Republican leader Dick Armey chortled. "I just hope she does more of it." But the Murtha defeat will be largely forgotten if the Democrats under Pelosi's leadership rack up a series of victories on the agenda that she had laid out for her first 100 hours as Speaker, which includes raising the minimum wage, forcing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription-drug prices, cutting student-loan rates and making the national-security fixes recommended by the 9/11 commission. Then there is the biggest issue of all, now that the Democrats are partners in governing and not just critics: charting a course on Iraq. Hoyer insists the phased withdrawal he supports is not all that different from the exit strategy that Murtha and Pelosi are pushing, but his victory tells Pelosi her caucus members will not tolerate her getting too far ahead of them.