There are certain votes that are easy to attack and difficult to defend. I do not mean, necessarily, that these votes are morally problematic. They are often just the opposite. What I mean is that they take more time and energy to explain than is practical in a 30-second ad or an eight-second sound bite. If you are accused of not supporting the troops because you voted against a war-funding supplemental bill, you don’t want to have to explain that you voted for an alternative amendment to the bill before you voted against the final version. If you voted against the SCHIP expansion of children’s health care, you don’t want to have to explain complex budgetary concerns that provided your rationale. Not all votes are created equal, and the ones that are especially subject to demagoguery are the ones that will provide the rallying cry for your opponents in the next election. So far, the Republicans are attempting to demagogue three votes from this Congress: the stimulus package, the budget, and the cap and trade energy bill.

On all three bills, Speaker Pelosi gave her blessing to vulnerable Democratic house members to vote with the Republicans. The Democrats have plenty of votes to spare, and they figure that they don’t need to offer easy targets to the Republicans.

Here is how it plays out. Speaker Pelosi (or her whips) goes to a vulnerable Democrat (one whose district voted for John McCain, for example) and tells them that she needs their support for a bill that will be controversial in their district. When the member expresses reservations, Pelosi tells them to wait until the vote is almost over to make their decision. If the Democrats get to 218 votes, the bill is going to pass and the member is free to vote against it. But if the bill is falling short of that number, she needs them to bite the bullet and fall in line. Sometimes there are other inducements and promises thrown in for motivation.

There are two ways of looking at this strategy. The first way is to see this as smart, politically savvy management of the Caucus. Pelosi’s job is to pass her agenda, to keep her members happy, to beat the Republicans in the media war, and to protect and expand her majorities. Showing a keen understanding of her members’ districts and vulnerabilities is just part of keeping them happy and protecting her majorities. There is no real upside to padding the size of victory if it means more vulnerable members who it costs more money to defend.

The second way of looking at this is that it undercuts the Democrats’ message, makes their agenda less attractive, makes it more likely that House legislation will be watered down in the Senate, and punishes vulnerable members who actually do support the Speaker’s agenda. It’s harder to defend a piece of contentious legislation if all the Republicans oppose it and are joined by forty Democrats, than if the Democrats are united in supporting it. If the Democrats are lacking unity on legislation, it’s easy for the Republicans to raise questions about its wisdom. When the legislation reaches the Senate where Democratic unity is required, it is harder to maintain that unity on a bill where ‘moderate’ House members are opposed to it. And, a vulnerable Democrat who supports Pelosi’s agenda is more out on a limb when they can’t look around and find allies that voted the same way.

I might add, that trimming votes to protect vulnerable incumbents makes it look like the Democrats aren’t voting their conscience but only to cover their asses. That perception can be corrosive over time.

The truth is that a competent Speaker does need to protect her incumbents from time to time. But there is a cost, and that cost cannot be denied. In some cases, a better way to protect people is to get them all to commit together and then rigorously support each other’s votes. In other words, a good offense is sometimes the best defense. Nowhere is this more true than on issues like climate change or gay rights, where part of the goal isn’t merely to win votes but to change perceptions and win the national argument.

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