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Democratic takeover emboldens liberal base

The Democratic takeover of Congress has energized and emboldened the party's liberal base, ratcheting up the pressure on the party's moderates.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Democratic majority was only three weeks old, but by Jan. 26, the grass-roots and Net-roots activists of the party's left wing had already settled on their new enemy: Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), the outspoken chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.

Progressive blogs -- including two new ones, Ellen Tauscher Weekly and Dump Ellen Tauscher -- were bashing her as a traitor to her party. A new liberal political action committee had just named her its "Worst Offender." And in Tauscher's East Bay district office that day in January, eight activists were accusing her of helping President Bush send more troops to Iraq.

Helping? Jennifer Barton, the lawmaker's district director, played them a DVD of Tauscher blasting the increase as an awful idea in a floor speech eight days earlier.

"The words are fine and good, but we are looking for leadership," scoffed Susan Schaller, one of the activists.

Leadership? Barton showed them the eight golden shovels Tauscher had received for bringing transportation projects to her suburban district, along with numerous awards she had won for her work protecting children, wetlands, affordable housing and abortion rights.

"That's fine and good," Schaller repeated, "but this is about Iraq."

The anti-Tauscher backlash illustrates how the Democratic takeover has energized and emboldened the party's liberal base, ratcheting up the pressure on the party's moderates. That pressure is also reaching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a San Francisco liberal who recognizes that moderate voters helped sweep Democrats into the majority. Pelosi has clashed with Tauscher in the past, but she's now eager to hold together her diverse caucus and to avoid the mistakes of GOP leaders who routinely ignored their moderates.

So far, Pelosi and her leadership team seem determined to protect Tauscher and her 60 New Democrats -- up from 47 before the election. In fact, the day after Working for Us, the new progressive political action committee, targeted Tauscher, Pelosi sought her out at a caucus meeting and assured her: "I'm not going to let this happen." House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) spent 20 minutes complaining to Working for Us founder Steve Rosenthal, who swiftly removed the hit list of "Worst Offenders" from the group's Web site.

Said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly: "We want to protect our incumbents. That's what we're about."

Democratic leaders want their activists to focus on beating Republicans. But the grass roots and Net roots believe the political tide is shifting their way, and they can provide the money, ground troops and buzz to challenge Democratic incumbents they don't like. had two Bay Area chapters before the election; now it has 15, and they could all go to work against Tauscher in a primary. "Absolutely, we could take her out," said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga -- better known as Kos -- the Bay Area blogger behind the influential Daily Kos site.

‘The left cliff’
Tauscher was reelected with 68 percent of the vote, but she said she takes this threat seriously; she has already used it in fundraising appeals. And though she has always highlighted her independence -- shortly before the election, she warned Democrats not to "go off the left cliff" -- she's now emphasizing her party loyalty.

She was once the only California Democrat to oppose Pelosi's campaign for leadership, but she now marvels that the speaker's performance has been "absolutely perfect -- and she looks so beautiful doing it!" Tauscher's Web site no longer features photos of her with Bush or Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who lost a Democratic primary of his own last year.

Those photos survived in Google's cache; bloggers have dubbed one shot that appears to show Bush's hand on Tauscher's thigh "The Caress," an allusion to "The Kiss" that dogged Lieberman in his fight against insurgent Ned Lamont. Tauscher donated and has helped raise a total of $2 million for Democrats over the past decade, and since 2003 she has voted with her party more than 90 percent of the time. This year, she has marched in lock step with Pelosi. But to Net-roots sites such as Daily Kos, Firedoglake, and Crooks and Liars, she's Lieberman in a pantsuit.

"I don't think it's a fair comparison," Tauscher said. "My colleagues look at this and say, 'If they're going after Ellen Tauscher, holy moly!' "

Why are they going after Ellen Tauscher?

She has annoyed the left by supporting legislation to scale back the estate tax, tighten bankruptcy rules and promote free-trade agreements. She served as vice chair of the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, which many liberal activists dismiss as a quasi-Republican K Street front group. And she voted to authorize the Iraq war, although she did so with caveats, and was quick to express her displeasure with its execution.

But liberal groups such as the Children's Defense Fund and the League of Conservation Voters give Tauscher impeccable report cards, while the National Rifle Association gives her straight F's.

"It's not just about her voting record," said Bob Brigham of San Francisco, an activist who recently started the Ellen Tauscher Weekly.

The latest blog wars began simmering in December after Tauscher led a New Democrat delegation to meet with Bush about bipartisan cooperation, irritating the Net roots. They boiled after her former chief of staff, Katie Merrill, posted a scathing piece on a California Web site attacking the Net roots for attacking Tauscher. Outraged activists immediately began mobilizing for a fight in 2008. "I didn't even know who Tauscher was 5 mins ago, but now I support a primary challenge against her," one typical commenter replied.

Brigham says it's never wise to tell the Net roots not to do something: "That's the worst move you can possibly make." But the anti-Tauscher backlash isn't just about pique, either. It's also partly about her district. And it's partly about her.

Tauscher grew up in working-class New Jersey, the daughter of a secretary and a shop steward for the meatpackers union. She was the first member of her family to attend college and, by 25, the youngest woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. After 14 years on Wall Street, she married a technology executive (they're now divorced) and moved to California, where she became a Democratic fundraiser.

‘A vicious fight’
In 1996, Tauscher ran for Congress as a pro-business, pro-environment, pro-military centrist against Bill Baker, a conservative Republican she portrayed as too far right for his suburban swing district. Pelosi supported her, and she won. But when Pelosi ran for whip, Tauscher supported moderate Hoyer, a close friend. And later in 2001, Tauscher accused Pelosi and her allies in the California Senate of redrawing her congressional district as payback. The new district was much more Democratic, which made it a much safer seat for the party, but not necessarily for Tauscher -- unless she followed Pelosi's lead.

That's why Kos has promised "a vicious fight for her seat." He's often portrayed as a raving ideologue, but he's really a savvy strategist; he has no problem supporting conservative Democrats in conservative districts such as new Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.). But he sees no need to tolerate a DLC type in Tauscher's district, where Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) received 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2004. And he said that primaries are the only way to force incumbents with safe seats to pay attention to constituents.

"We're creating real democracy," he said.

Kos and founder Eli Pariser serve on the board of They Work for Us -- an issue advocacy group affiliated with Working for Us -- which also plans to focus on Democrats who are more conservative than their districts.

"We're not going to the Heath Shulers of the world and saying, 'We want you to be more like Barney Frank,' " Rosenthal said, referring to the liberal Massachusetts congressman.

But Tauscher's district is not Pelosi's San Francisco or Kos's Berkeley. It's connected to Berkeley by tunnel, but as Tauscher likes to say, everything changes when you drive through that tunnel, even the microclimate. "Suddenly it's 25 degrees warmer, there's not a cloud in the sky and you know you're in Tauscher territory," she said.

Tauscher territory is mostly soccer moms, software executives and Restoration Hardware stores. It also includes the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Travis Air Force Base and several farm towns. "Ellen's a perfect fit for that district," said Audrey Gordon, a local Democratic fundraiser. "We've got a lot of tough seats to defend this year; why on Earth would Democrats want to attack Ellen?"

Tauscher's liberal critics say she has undermined the party during the Bush years, making a fetish of bipartisanship at a time when Republicans had no interest in real compromise, demonizing the far left at a time when Democrats needed to unify against the far right. And they're still seething about her "left cliff" quote, which echoed GOP talking points before Election Day.

"She reinforces the idea that lefties are out-of-control children," said Brian Leubitz, who runs a liberal California blog called Calitics. "She provides cover for Republican extremists."

Tauscher says it's obvious that Democrats will alienate independent voters if they tack to the hard left and she won't apologize for stating the obvious. "The speaker has been indefatigable about saying she's going to govern from the center," she said. "I guess if you're looking to be offended, that's what's going to offend you."

‘Her contempt for the grass roots’
Her rhetoric infuriates activists, who still quote her statements that she never met a trade deal she didn't like, even though she later voted against one, and that she slept fine after her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war, even though she now opposes it. She supports same-sex marriage, but she's not activists' idea of a Bay Area politician: too Wall Street, too establishment, too comfortable with the Chamber of Commerce.

"You can sense her contempt for the grass roots," Leubitz said. "She really doesn't represent her district."

How does Tauscher represent her district?

On a typical day earlier this month, she started with a three-hour Transportation and Infrastructure Committee markup. California faces a water crisis, and Tauscher had two water bills on the agenda that she had pushed for years. She made a point of allowing freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) to share credit on one of the bills; she had supported McNerney's centrist opponent in his primary, to the disgust of the Net roots, but now she was trying to help him keep his seat.

She then raced to catch the last minutes of an Armed Services Committee hearing, just in time to question Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As five women from the antiwar group Code Pink stood in protest, Tauscher asked two quick questions: Why didn't Bush's budget increase production of the C-17, a plane based at Travis? And how much would the president's troop increase cost?

Pace called the C-17 a "great aircraft" and hinted that he wouldn't be too upset if Tauscher, who chairs the subcommittee on strategic forces, stuck a few more into the budget, as she did last year. Gates then revealed the price of the troop increase: $5.6 billion.

"It's amazing how you can walk right in after doing something else for three hours and get them to answer the question nobody had asked," Tauscher said.

But Code Pink activist Zanne Joi, whose shirt read "Stop Funding, Start Impeaching," was not impressed. She said she was horrified that Tauscher hadn't challenged Gates about Iraq, that she had treated the increase as a done deal. "We need her to stand up and end this war," said Joi. She and her Code Pink colleagues recently told Tauscher that if she wouldn't support a bill calling for total withdrawal from Iraq within six months, they'd occupy one of her district offices.

Tauscher rolls her eyes at this kind of talk. She said she doesn't trust anything the Bush administration says, but it's the administration in power. "I want to represent my constituents, so I have to work with this president," she said. "I'm a pragmatic person. I don't have the luxury of saying, 'I'll come back in January 2009 and try to get some work done.' "

Tauscher spent the rest of her day dealing with local issues. She talked immigration with the California Farm Bureau; she strategized about a contract to run Livermore with the University of California; she discussed a traffic plan for Alameda County with a group of public officials. A lawyer named John Gibson stopped by to thank Tauscher for telling his mother nice things about him at a recent event, shortly before his mother died. "I went out on a high note with my mother," he said.

To Tauscher, this is what it means to be a representative. "I bring people together. I get things done," she said. "And I get things done the way the speaker wants."

On Feb. 2, when the House Democrats held their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, made it clear that Working for Us didn't work for him.

"Our majority can disappear in a wisp," he told the members. "I'm the sheriff of the incumbent-protection program, and if you need help, let me know. In Blue America, there's no room for PACs to chase vulnerable members they have differences with."

From the crowd, a voice squealed: "Woo hoo!"

It was Tauscher.

Working for Us was created in January by a coalition of bloggers, trial lawyers and labor leaders, the trifecta of Democratic interest groups. But once the group took aim at Tauscher, the trial lawyers quietly withdrew. And Tauscher soon met for a glass of wine with Andy Stern, the feisty liberal who runs the Service Employees International Union; he assured her of his union's support, even though it had helped launch the political action committee. For 12 years, Republicans ran the House according to the "majority of the majority," which meant that the conservative majority within the GOP caucus ruled. Pelosi is trying to run her House according to a consensus of the majority, avoiding legislation that does not have broad Democratic support. She hasn't forced members in swing districts to take tough votes on same-sex marriage, gun control or trade. She is focused on the minimum wage, ethics reform and other issues that can bring together Tauscher and

"Having served in the majority and the minority, I can tell you, the majority is better," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), another moderate who has sparred with Pelosi in the past. "It will take a big tent to keep it."

But Kos points to Harman as a perfect example of how the Net roots can keep Democrats in line. He said Harman used to be a constant irritant, a go-to quote for reporters looking for a Democrat to tweak liberals -- until she had to fight off a primary challenge from the left in 2006. "She's been great ever since," he said. Now Harman even writes on the liberal Huffington Post blog.

Kos can imagine a day when Tauscher still holds her seat but is no longer distasteful to the left. "That's what victory would look like -- a more responsive representative," he said. So when Tauscher praises Pelosi as "perfect on substance, perfect on optics," it's hard to know if that's a result of personal evolution, political trends, or blogospheric pressure, but it's music to Kos's ears. It's helpful to Democratic leaders, too.

Said Rosenthal, the Working for Us founder: "We want them to understand what we're doing helps and enhances the majority."

But Pelosi still faces two potential dangers.

She could work so hard to appease the moderates that she alienates her base. In fact, the left blogosphere is already grumbling that Democrats aren't doing enough to stop the war. And there's always the left cliff. Those moderate first-termers could be one-termers if Pelosi overplays her hand.

"Nancy knows our majority is fragile in its newness," Tauscher said. "If you keep our most endangered species in your frontal lobe, you know what you have to produce."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.