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Holding onto the reins of power

House Democrats, including the leaders and some liberal firebrands, seem to recognize that it would be a horrible mistake to turn 90 degrees left and leave the center.  By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

One of the smartest Republicans I know suggested to me last week that if House Republicans wanted to remain relevant and be players in the 110th Congress, they would take their cues not from the White House but from the conservative-moderate Blue Dog Democrats.

A conservative with nearly three decades of Washington experience, including in the innermost sanctums of Capitol Hill, this Republican also posited that by siding with the 44 Blue Dog Democrats, the about-200 House GOP members might actually end up with more conservative measures passing the House than if they did the bidding of the White House, which would likely end up compromising with Democratic congressional leaders.

The irony, of course, is that many liberals wonder if the Blue Dog Democrats would sell their party down the river. Others worry the Blue Dogs would not be able to withstand pressure from soon-to-be-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- particularly the new ones angling for good committee assignments -- and that they would move left in exchange for being taken care of by the leadership. In all likelihood, whichever side is willing to deal with the Blue Dogs will end up on top of every time.

What is most interesting to me is that House Democrats, including the leaders, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and some of the most liberal firebrands, seem to recognize it would be a horrible mistake to start playing "Happy Days are Here Again" while turning 90 degrees to their left.

In conversations with people ranging from someone who will be the staff director for a liberal about to take over the chairmanship of a significant committee to the chief of staff for a member of the CBC who is certifiably in the Pelosi camp, they all seem to know very well what they should and should not do if they want to remain in power.

The "First 100 Hours" program unveiled by Pelosi before the election is a collection of scrubbed-clean-of-controversy proposals, not unlike the 1994 Contract with America.

The first day they plan on passing new lobbying rules, a sign that they will do things differently and are being responsive to the scandals of the last two years. Republicans should have done that earlier this year. The second day Democrats plan to pass the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. While few Americans even know what the recommendations were, that sounds good, too.

In the balance of the 100 hours they promise to pass a minimum wage increase, cut interest on student loans in half, require the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to get lower drug prices for Medicare, promote stem-cell research and institute pay-as-you-go requirements that future tax cuts or spending increases have to be offset.

I have not been the chairman of Pelosi's fan club, often finding some of her statements and actions a bit impolitic and timing less than impeccable. But having read the 100-hour plan and having listened to her and other key House Democrats just before and since the election, I have not heard or read anything approaching majority-busting or controversial, the most recent idea being full transparency on congressional earmarking. There are plenty who believe it is more a matter of if, rather than when, Democrats start charging left, but so far they haven't. I guess I have gone from being an atheist on the Pelosi cause to an agnostic, though certainly not yet a believer.

If this is the direction Democrats choose to go, and they have the discipline to resist temptation to take the hard left, they have a chance to do very well. But if they give in to their hearts as opposed to their heads, this majority will last exactly 24 months, as there are a heck of a lot more Democratic members in red districts than Republicans in blue.

This is the same country that just two years ago gave President Bush a majority, albeit barely, and re-elected him. A big majority of those voters are mad about the war or about how the administration chose to conduct it, and they just gave up on a Republican Congress that they began to see as unresponsive. But it is still the same country and the same people.

Most Americans reside ideologically between the 30-yard lines. Indeed, 47 percent of voters in this election called themselves moderates, 32 percent conservative and just 21 percent liberal.

In both his 1992 presidential campaign and again after the 1994 midterm election debacle, former President Bill Clinton found the sweet spot in American politics, and got re-elected with room to spare and with job approval ratings that stuck with him even during a scandal that would have resulted in removal from office for just about any other politician.

The question is whether Democrats can find that sweet spot, or for that matter, can Republicans beat them to it?

For Republicans, everything is harder, because while no one is in control of Congress, or Washington, for that matter, Democrats are in charge of the process on both sides of the Capitol dome, setting the agenda, holding the hearings and, of course, issuing subpoenas. In many ways, conservatives have to wait, hope and pray for Democrats to take that sharp left turn, make mistakes and give them openings to exploit.