Ken Garcia: Pelosi ascension raises question: How effective will she be?

A lot of red states are feeling awfully blue this morning and no region should be happier about that than the Bay Area, which has survived months of bashing about its liberal underpinnings only to emerge as the home district for the likely new speaker of the House.

It’s been a stunning turn of events for Democrats, who have had to survive the last six years as the minority party under the heavy hand of Republican excess. The midterm elections have proven to be the biggest turnover in Congress in more than a decade, a political upheaval brought on by GOP scandals and dissatisfaction about the direction of the war in Iraq.

This campaign was one of the nastiest and most polarizing battles ever for control of Congress, producing record numbers of voters. Two separatepolls showed the highest level of interest among voters ever for a nonpresidential election. But the president remained the focal point of the election, with rising discontent over his policies sparking the change in the House.

It’s a particularly energizing time for Northern California lawmakers, who will likely reap the fruits of the ascension of Nancy Pelosi, San Francisco’s congresswoman, to lead the new Democratic majority in the House. Pelosi, who has survived sharp attacks by GOP candidates, now can almost certainly add to her lists of historic firsts. She was the first woman elected whip of a party’s House caucus, the first woman to be elected minority leader and now is expected to be the first female House speaker in U.S. history.

Pelosi was in fact a key to the congressional makeover, raising more than $50 million for her party, but she was also seen as the shrill voice on the other side of the political aisle, referring to the GOP “freak show.” Her relentless attacks on the Republican leadership during the campaign has left a lot of political observers wondering how effective she’ll be as the head of a majority party facing off with a president who has been intransigent over his policies in Iraq.

Will this translate into two years of legislative gridlock? If Pelosi hopes to shed the tag of a liberal extremist, she will have to show she can take advantage of Bush’s withering popularity. She has called for a relatively modest agenda of raising the minimum wage, lowering the cost of drugs for Medicare patients and reducing student loan interest rates, but no one knows how far Democrats will push on core issues almost certain to be threatened with a presidential veto.

Pelosi’s elevation will likely resonate through the state’s political makeup. Numerous members of the state delegation are expected to assume top committee leadership positions that were previously held by GOP members from Southern California. It’s a seismic political shift that no one could have predicted one year ago — but as Bush’s popularity waned, so did the fortunes of his like-minded congressmen, who didn’t foresee the growing disenchantment of the voters over everything from the response to Hurricane Katrina to the president’s insistence on “staying the course” in Iraq.

“It's all about the war,” said John Zogby, a pollster. “It is just simple revulsion against the war.”

That course has now become a case study in how to cede power. GOP leaders didn’t see it quickly enough, and their arrogance in their ability to withstand any challenges under the White House leadership proved to be their undoing. And it didn’t help that the party wearing the moral high hats found them scattered in the wind after one of their own was found to be pursuing relationships with young male pages on Capitol Hill.

The key question now is how well the president will be able to work with Democrats whom he mostly ignored on major policy decisions, from immigration to reforming Social Security — a move that was derailed largely by Pelosi. The election became a national referendum on Bush — in the latest Washington Post-ABC news poll, 31 percent of those surveyed said they planned to use their congressional votes to register their opposition to the president.

Pelosi’s icy relationship with the president will be the focus of speculation, for it’s one thing to be the minority party and quite another to be the one to lead. The corruption and arrogance that led to the GOP implosion now give Democrats a chance for momentum going into the 2008 presidential campaign.

Their biggest challenge may be avoiding the kind of ideological overreaching that produced Tuesday’s shock wave, and whether they will seek consensus and not revenge.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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