Conditions For a Coup
Posted on May 18, 2009
(this originally appeared in The Politico)
A congressional leader makes a startling statement. The media jump on it, causing a firestorm. The leader first fans the flames and then tries to put them out. Speculation rises that the leader’s colleagues are thinking about mounting a challenge.
Nancy Pelosi in 2009? Or Newt Gingrich in 1998? Or Trent Lott in 2002?
While it is awfully early to be predicting that House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) will face a leadership challenge because of her handling of “torture-gate,” conditions are starting to gel for the good old-fashioned congressional coup. Here are five factors that ultimately lead to a coup:
1. A leadership rival: Gingrich (R-Ga.) had Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas). Lott (R-Miss.) had Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.). And Pelosi has Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). While the majority leader’s office has explicitly told me that he won’t ever run against Pelosi (and I believe it) there is no doubt that Hoyer and Pelosi are rivals — and, at times, bitter rivals.
Hoyer ran against Pelosi for minority whip in 2001, and her victory made his trip to the speaker’s gavel that much more difficult. A dozen years earlier, DeLay had managed the minority whip campaign of Rep. Ed Madigan (R-Ill.), who ran against Gingrich in a race to succeed then-Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.). The relationship between DeLay and Gingrich never recovered. Over in the Senate, Nickles had long chafed under Lott’s leadership style, which frequently left him out of the loop.
2. A disaffected base: The hard part of being a leader is having to make decisions that anger your political base. Since becoming speaker, Pelosi has not been able to deliver for her liberal base. She promised that we would pull out of Iraq, but we are still in Iraq. She promised that this Congress would be the most ethical in history, but she stands by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).
Her base is angry because she made promises she couldn’t keep. In fact, she has faced primary opposition from Cindy Sheehan because she hasn’t been left-wing enough.
Conservatives were so worried that Gingrich would be out-charmed and outfoxed by Bill Clinton that they demanded that then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-N.D.) accompany him to every meeting with the president. When Gingrich bowed to reality and scheduled legislation to reopen the federal government (which had been closed down for five days in November 1995), DeLay, by then the majority whip, was so angry that he almost led a coup against Gingrich on the spot. That required Gingrich to take a hard line later that year when negotiation broke down on the budget and the government stayed shut for almost three weeks over the Christmas holidays, until Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) unilaterally passed a funding bill in the Senate, ending the stalemate and reopening the government.
Similarly, Lott, the consummate Senate deal maker, was considered a fair-weather conservative. He was personally conservative, but true conservatives never trusted him to stay true to their needs in tough negotiations.
3. A political liability to the majority-makers: The Pelosi name is toxic in many of the districts that make the Democratic majority. In some parts of Blue Dog country, she is simply not invited to help members raise money or do campaign events.
The same thing happened to Newt Gingrich. In fact, the Democrats ran hundreds of thousands of advertisements morphing Gingrich’s face with that of whomever the vulnerable Republican was. (Perhaps the most effective was the Newt-Blute ads that sunk the fortunes of Massachusetts Republican Peter Blute, who is now a successful talk radio host in the Boston area). Lott became toxic for Republicans outside the South because of his praise for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
4. Micromanagement: Pelosi, like Gingrich and Lott, has a very tight grip on the congressional steering wheel. She is a micromanager like Lott, and she dominates the House much like Gingrich.
She also has a vindictive side, which instills not only fear but also resentment. Her fairly nasty spat with Democratic Rep. Jane Harman has made her fellow Californian a bitter rival. Her efforts to run Murtha against Hoyer put Hoyer on notice that he’d better not rest in his efforts to cultivate his power base. And her decision to fire Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and replace him the ideologue Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) as head of the Energy and Commerce Committee at the beginning of this Congress has made a legion of secret but angry enemies among the Democrats.
As with Gingrich and Lott, these rivals will exploit any opportunity to strike back at her management style.
5. Press pile-on punctures credibility: Pelosi’s statement that “the CIA misleads Congress all the time” is on par with Gingrich’s complaints about poor seating on Air Force One or Lott’s comments about Thurmond. For Gingrich, comments he made at a Sperling breakfast led to a New York Post cover with a depiction of the speaker as a crybaby. And Lott delayed his response as the press cast the incoming majority leader as a racist who had wanted Thurmond to win the presidency in 1948 as a Dixiecrat.
With Pelosi, the press assumes she is both a hypocrite and a liar. Her various explanations of what she knew of waterboarding and when she knew it have been unconvincing at best. Her news conference was a complete disaster, and her credibility is in tatters.
Should Pelosi continue to mishandle this current crisis, and should she continue to make wild statements about the veracity of the CIA, don’t be surprised if somebody in the House says enough is enough. The conditions are ripe for a coup.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.