Behind Their Smiles

Like any newly elected congressman, Indiana's Brad Ellsworth has a lot to learn. Before he had even digested his victory over Republican incumbent John Hostettler last week, Ellsworth was poring over forms and factoids, shipped straight to Indiana from some new friends on Capitol Hill. "They're asking me what kind of BlackBerry I want," said a mildly exasperated Ellsworth. "I don't know what kind of BlackBerry I want. I've always just used a cell phone." As his campaign staffers caught up on sleep, Ellsworth worried over pension plans, travel arrangements and finding a home in the nation's capital. "Did you know that some [congressmen] live with seven or eight other guys?" he asked. "People back home would be amazed."

But wide-eyed as he may be, Ellsworth has already learned a crucial rule for survival in Washington: find allies you can trust. Two days after his victory, he placed a call to another newly elected Democratic congressman, North Carolina's Heath Shuler. Shuler is a former NFL quarterback; he and Ellsworth, a sheriff, had been two of the "macho Democrat" stars of the '06 cycle--manly men whose conservative positions on issues like abortion and gay marriage had helped them win in their Red States. Now Ellsworth was calling to congratulate his soon-to-be colleague and to say that the two should stick together in the new House. After all, he said, they both had to answer to the same kind of conservative constituents back home--and both know they won't last long in Congress if they go native in D.C. "We both won; now we're both in the same boat," Ellsworth said. "We've got to remember that the people back home put us here and they can take us back out."

Most Democrats in Washington weren't thinking so far ahead. After 12 years in the minority, the Democrats swept control of both houses of Congress--and the party leadership reveled in the exotic new pleasures of victory. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, danced on national television. Harry Reid, the usually staid Senate Democratic floor leader, kissed the television screen in his hotel suite when a network projected Claire McCaskill the winner in her hard-fought Missouri Senate race. Nancy Pelosi, soon to be the first female Speaker of the House, paraded across the broadcast networks, a proud grandma in an olive pantsuit, proclaiming herself "thrilled."

But Pelosi has been around long enough to know that in Washington the party never lasts too long. She will soon be judged on her ability to make the Congress work, no simple task for an incoming Speaker whose majority in the House is thin and is made up of members with loyalties to different generations, regions and ideologies. Fresh-faced conservatives like Ellsworth might say they don't "want our president to be viewed as weak," but they won't have much say about the matter with powerful Democratic committee chairmen like John Conyers and Henry Waxman mulling investigations on issues like Iraq-war contracts and NSA wiretaps. And while President George W. Bush was quick to say he'd offered Pelosi a list of "Republican interior decorators" to help her spruce up her new office, no one in either party expects the White House to bend over backward to help the Democratic Congress find its groove.

The challenges facing the Democrats are massive--changing the tone in Washington, working with a polarizing president, addressing the deficit and, ahem, coming up with some kind of new plan for Iraq. It is far from clear that Pelosi, Reid and their cohorts have the mettle to stick together and take them on. After all, they are Democrats. But if the party's 2006 performance proves anything, it's that discipline isn't a foreign concept to this crew. The leadership of the new majority has already put out word that members will pay a price if they jeopardize the party's attempts to place itself on a centrist footing. Liberal activists, who poured countless hours and millions of dollars into the '06 effort, are eager for the Dems to deliver on a progressive agenda. But the leadership is talking up a domestic program that steers clear of social issues and seeks consensus on the minimum wage, college tuition and trade. Thrilled as they may still be with their victory, many Democrats are now realizing that that their future depends on a tricky proposition: actually becoming the centrist, big-tent party they've spent two years claiming to be.

Pelosi is an odd champion of the center. Only 34 percent of respondents in the NEWSWEEK Poll had a favorable impression of her in part because, as the congresswoman from San Francisco, she has spent her career being lampooned by conservatives as the chief spokesperson for America's loony left. A strong supporter of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, she was a favorite target for Republicans this fall trying to portray her party as extreme. (Ellsworth's opponent ran an ad against him claiming a vote for Ellsworth would be a vote for Pelosi "and her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank.") The voters who re-elected Pelosi to her 11th term by an overwhelming margin also handily approved a measure calling for the impeachment of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Still, the "San Francisco liberal" label has never really quite fit Pelosi. She gained political entree in the city not by protesting in Haight-Ashbury but by holding fund-raisers in ritzy Presidio Heights. While others in her generation were burning their bras and draft cards, she was dressing her five children in plaid pinafores and marching them off to the Convent of the Sacred Heart. "There isn't one shred of evidence that she's veered off to the left with the Democratic caucus," says her friend, Washington Congressman Jim McDermott. "In fact, some of us on the left wish she would tilt a little more our way from time to time."

Pelosi developed her strategy for claiming the Speaker's gavel by consulting corporate America--not your typical liberal play. After the party's disastrous defeat in the 2004 elections, she began casting around for fresh ideas on how the Democrats could reintroduce themselves to the American people. "I decided to go to the private sector," she told NEWSWEEK, "and ask them how to become No. 1."

Through her staff, Pelosi found her way to a group of corporate-image consultants including high-tech entrepreneur Richard Yanowitch, computer-software marketer John Cullinane and Jack Trout, a marketing strategist who'd worked with big corporate clients like Merck and IBM. "I specialize in differentiation," Trout says. "I told her, 'That's your problem--you haven't found a way to differentiate the party from the Republican Party in a clear, simple way'." Trout encouraged Pelosi to take advantage of the weak points in Karl Rove's base-driven Republican strategy. "You've got to go the opposite way," he told her. "It's Marketing 101. Say 'We're about good governing for all , not a privileged few ... ' Bring back the big-tent idea."

Pelosi liked what she heard. The centrist messaging dovetailed nicely with Emanuel's strategy of recruiting candidates who could run in Red States and highlight conservative positions on cultural issues. As the elections approached, she made sure that the old bulls of Congress were onboard. In the final days of the campaign, she held conference calls with senior members, urging them not to deviate from the party's emphasis on restoring civility, integrity and fiscal responsibility in Congress. "She doesn't want to be Speaker for two years," says an aide. "We can do it," but "we have to keep our people together."

Already, Pelosi has made it clear that she will brook little dissent as Speaker. When Conyers, the presumed chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, raised the possibility of bringing articles of impeachment against President Bush earlier this year, Pelosi quickly chastised him, saying any talk of impeachment would distract from the Democrats' message.

Veteran House committee chairmen understand Pelosi's need for loyalty, and share her desire to win. But they are also eager to conduct a reality check on President Bush. No sooner were the election returns in than Henry Waxman, the soon-to-be chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, directed his aides to draw up an "oversight" plan for the panel. With a staff of more than 80 investigators, Waxman has instantly become the most formidable of White House adversaries. (Two top D.C. lobbyists and a white-collar defense lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous discussing still-hypothetical investigations, told NEWSWEEK they were already getting nervous phone calls from prospective Waxman targets, seeking counsel about what to do if they get hauled before his committee.) Waxman's interest in oversight could quickly lead him to the Jack Abramoff scandal. This worries some leadership aides who remember that Republicans frittered away their popularity in the '90s by persecuting the White House from Capitol Hill. (Waxman has said he's not interested in payback, but rather accountability).

The most difficult debate facing the Democrats will be over Iraq. After six years of decrying their lack of oversight on military policy, party leaders now have co-ownership of the Iraq account. Many Democrats say the party should focus its energy on pressing the White House for a change of course in current policy, rather than dredging up old debates over the manner in which the administration took the country to war. But Carl Levin, the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says he also intends to demand access to some 58 internal Defense Department memos dealing with prewar Iraq intelligence and military planning. These memos involve the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and the Counter-Terrorism Policy Evaluation Group, two secretive units that have been accused of cooking the books on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to Al Qaeda. "There [is] still some significant unfinished business in the area of documents that have been denied us," Levin told NEWSWEEK.

Less likely to dominate and divide the party, at least for the moment, will be old debates over abortion. Many in the leadership are convinced that the party was successful in the midterms because it de-emphasized cultural issues and backed pro-life candidates like Pennsylvania's Bob Casey. "The reason this election went well for the Democrats is that [they] decided to have a bigger tent on abortion," says Rachel Laser of Third Way, a Democratic think tank. "Democrats should always be the party of abortion rights, but they should also become the party of reducing abortion."

Republicans, of course, will do their best to keep values issues on the table and search for other openings to exploit. But Bush is at least going through the motions of putting the bitter campaign behind him. "If I sit here and mope about it, what is that going to prove?" he asked a senior aide after the election results came in. (The aide declined to be identified discussing a private conversation with the president.) Bush lunched with Pelosi and peppered her with questions about her daughter Alexandra, a filmmaker Bush befriended when the younger Pelosi was making her documentary "Journeys With George." (Cheney was also present at the lunch, says an aide to Pelosi, but said hardly a word the whole time.)

No one expects the bipartisan era of good feeling to last. And it won't be long until Pelosi's ability to ride herd over her ranks will be tested. Eli Pariser, the executive director of the grass-roots organization, says the party won votes not by tilting rightward but by backing "bold, populist, progressive candidates ... and by connecting with people around the formula of being for the little guy." MoveOn supports the agenda Pelosi and Reid have announced--but sees it as only a small start. The group wants the Democratic Congress to come up with comprehensive plans for alternative energy and global warming and wants U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of next year. "People want responsible redeployment," Pariser says. Meanwhile, some Dems are already trying to oust MoveOn hero Howard Dean from his perch as party chairman. Clinton ally James Carville began floating rumors that defeated Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. could replace Dean--without consulting Ford, who says he isn't interested in the job.

Viewed from any partisan vantage point, many of the pending items on the Democratic agenda seem small-scale--harking back to President Bill Clinton's triangulation strategy. A baby-steps approach will be crucial to keeping the coalition together but may nonetheless prove frustrating to newcomers like Ellsworth, who ran on promises of big, fast change. For his part, Ellsworth says he doesn't have any plans to challenge the more liberal and more seasoned Democrats he'll soon be working beside. What will he say to Barney Frank, the congressman whose "homosexual agenda" Ellsworth's opponent tried to link him to in the campaign? "I don't know what I'll say to him," Ellsworth says. "He's got to represent his people and I've got to represent mine."