Swing and a Miss


Back in 2001, the Republicans who then controlled the Michigan state legislature approved a successfully partisan redistricting plan. They managed to pit two incumbent House Democrats against each other -- and one of them wasn't just any incumbent.

The Republicans had trained their sights on John Dingell, who'd been in the House since 1955 and who chaired one of the House's most powerful committees, Energy and Commerce. The redistricting plan threw Dingell in against Lynn Rivers of Ann Arbor, a standard university-town liberal who had first been elected, incongruously enough, in the Gingrich Revolution year of 1994. The new district was half Dingell's old district, and half Rivers'.

Dingell won the August 2002 primary with nearly 60 percent of the vote. That isn't what's interesting today. What's interesting today is that a certain House Democrat who was then running for minority whip made a startling move -- she gave the upstart Rivers $10,000 to defeat Dingell.

That Democrat, of course, was Nancy Pelosi. Her spokesman said at the time that she'd made the contribution a day before Michigan's redistricting plan was officially approved. But even if there wasn't bad blood between Pelosi and Dingell before the $10,000, there sure was after.

It's a little factoid worth remembering today in light of Pelosi's move last week to go around Dingell and his committee and create a special panel on global warming. Not that he needs it, but that $10,000 may give Dingell just a little more impetus to force, and win, a showdown against Pelosi on jurisdiction.

Pelosi is completely right on the merits. For 12 years, the Republican House couldn't even discuss global warming, except to deny it. They have been, for the planet, 12 crucial years. And now that the Democrats are back in charge, the idea that the party would have as its point man on this issue someone with Dingell's posture is ludicrous.

Last December, Amanda Griscom Little of Grist Dingell point blank whether he believed that the scientific consensus on global warming was at this point established. His answer was right out of a Competitive Enterprise Institute pamphlet: "This country, this world, the [human] race of which you and I are a part, is great at having consensuses that are in great error. And so I want to get the scientific facts, and find out what the situation is, and find out what is the cure, and find out what is the cure that is acceptable to the country that I represent and serve."

You'll get a far truer sense of Dingell's priorities if you substitute "district" for "country" in the above sentence. He's looking out for the auto industry, specifically on the question of higher CAFÉ standards for cars. He has a couple plants in his district. It's fine for politicians to look after their districts, but politicians who are more interested in doing that than doing an obviously good and necessary thing -- improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles -- shouldn't be calling the shots in the party that is clearly supposed to be looking after the environment.

But being right on the merits is only about 20 percent of politics. The other 80 percent consists of making sure you get the right outcome, and here, Pelosi seems to me to be right back where she was with the Steny Hoyer debacle. Dingell is furious, and it's said that he's working to force a vote on the question of whether his committee or Pelosi's new creation is going to have jurisdiction over global warming-related legislation. He is also widely respected and has built up a lot of power and influence with his colleagues over the years -- and looking at how badly Pelosi lost the Hoyer-Jack Murtha vote, it's not much of a stretch to say that Dingell might have more cred in the caucus than Pelosi does. Finally, the very way Pelosi went about this has created a well of sympathy for Dingell even from members who are ideologically closer to Pelosi. In Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald's terrific piece in The Washington Post on Tuesday, Henry Waxman accused the Speaker of acting "the way the Republicans did it."

Pelosi's great calling card was supposed to be that, while she might not be a great intellect, she's a sharpie -- the daughter of the Baltimore machine pol with an instinct for the art of what used to be the smoke-filled room. But so far it's looking as if that is exactly the thing she's worst at. (It's never occurred to anyone I'm aware of to ask, but … maybe her father was indeed a machine pol, but not a very good one.) Whatever it is, it comes down to this: If you're going to pick these fights, you'd damn well better win them. She might have figured that out with regard to Dingell back in 2002.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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