It's that time again. Members of Congress were trying last week to wrap matters up before their monthlong recess. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the other leaders of the 110th Congress had an unusually complex set of questions to answer as they face the usual end-of-summer dilemma: explain or complain?
Do they explain their accomplishments, building a public perception of successful leadership with the promise of more to come? Or do they complain about the minority party's many obstructions, predicating the pre-election argument that a bigger majority could accomplish far more?
It's rarely an easy question to resolve. This year the equation is infinitely more complex. The nation is still mired in a deeply unpopular and probably unwinnable war, a condition the Democrats have not managed to end. And despite significant legislative accomplishments, congressional approval ratings are at record lows.
Democrats need to both complain and explain when they hit their town meetings. They have plenty of substantial accomplishments to talk about. They can also rightly point out that Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have purposefully gummed up the works only to lay claim to the Election Day argument that the do-nothing Democrats haven't governed.
But Democrats also have a powerful argument. Mrs. Pelosi, who took the gavel with more public doubts about her abilities than any House leader in recent memory, has done an exceptional job under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They shouldn't shy away from the theme that Mrs. Pelosi, the first woman in the job and a "San Francisco liberal" in a party with an unresolved ideological identity crisis, has proven that a woman's place is, indeed, in the House — and that she and the Democrats are running it well.
Mrs. Pelosi's leadership style has been a unique mix of soft and hard tactics. When appropriate, she leads through consensus, letting the committee chairs work out the details of complex bills and intervening only to resolve seemingly intractable disputes. But she also has proven her toughness on numberless occasions: passing over Democratic Reps. Jane Harman of California and Alcee Hastings of Florida, in favor of her own choice for chair of the Intelligence Committee; circumventing powerful John Dingell of Michigan on energy legislation while reassuring a recent interviewer that she "loves him dearly"; and forging near-unanimity on tough bills despite serious intraparty qualms.
The result has been a series of legislative victories that may yet boost Democrats' approval ratings to respectable levels. Mrs. Pelosi led her caucus to "drain the swamp," overcoming serious opposition within her own party to pass landmark ethics and lobbying reform legislation and delivering a central campaign pledge. She helped raise the minimum wage and eliminate the global gag rule, offering important victories to core Democratic constituencies. And Democrats struggled to pass legislation extending health care coverage to millions more children — a no-brainer President Bush has promised to veto. Yes, the leader whose toughness many questioned has maneuvered an unpopular president into denying health care to children in order to keep tobacco taxes low. That's hardball, played in an aubergine Armani suit.
To be sure, there's a reason public approval of Democrats is low despite their obvious successes. Democrats campaigned on the implicit promise to end the war and bring the troops home. Until there's an end in sight, there will be a plague on both houses, Democratic and Republican. But Democrats should complain loudly that they've tried to do the right thing, only to be blocked by the president and his party. This is President Bush's war, and that of the party that enables him and has opposed every effort to set a timetable for withdrawal in Iraq.
Voters are almost certain to remember that when it's time to vote. In a new Democracy Corps. poll, most Americans may not think much of Congress' failure to end the war, but in generic, head-to-head match-ups in key districts, Democrats are winning in a rout.
As the new Democratic majority leaves Capitol Hill to face their constituents back home, they have a little complaining and a lot of explaining to do. They should explain they've been working hard to change the course in Iraq while raising the minimum wage, lowering student loan rates, increasing health benefits for veterans returning from Iraq and battling a president who has threatened to veto proposals the American people support.
Confident in their leadership's ability to govern responsibly, Democrats while back home need to ask the public's help in forcing the Republicans to act more responsibly when Congress returns. Of course, the best way to do that is by electing more Democrats.
Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and National Public Radio and former campaign manager for Al Gore.