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Newt and Nancy, imperfect bogeypeople

Can the GOP make the next election a referendum on Pelosi?

Every political party needs a bogeyman (or bogeywoman). It's not yet clear whether the Senate Republicans will tap Sonia Sotomayor as their designated enemy - thus far, they have been verbally circumspect (rightly so, given the strong support for Sotomayer in the latest polls) - but it's quite clear, in the other chamber, that the House Republicans have settled on their own bogeyperson. They're hoping to boost their lowly political fortunes by demonizing Nancy Pelosi.

The goal is to gain seats in 2010 by framing those House elections as a referendum on Pelosi. I question whether such a strategy will work - the Democrats tried and failed to frame the 1996 House elections as a referendum on Speaker Newt Gingrich - but we're talking here about a party with few viable options. Going after Pelosi is therefore a predictable choice, however imperfect.

I bring this up now because the House GOP strategists fired off a few shots yesterday, by running some anti-Pelosi messages in the swing districts of vulnerable Democratic congressmen - 25 targets in all. In a mix of TV ads, radios ads, and robocalls, the GOP is assailing Pelosi's recent claim that the CIA seven years ago had misled her on the torture issue, and skewering the House Democrats for blocking the Republicans' call for an investigation of her claim. (The TV ad, which plays off the theme music of "Mission: Impossible" is a qualitative improvement over the recent Republican National Committee video that likened Pelosi to Pussy Galore.)

The underlying GOP argument is that Pelosi is too extreme for those swing districts - most of which had been dependably Republican in the past - and that, ergo, the current Democratic congressmen in those districts are too extreme because they work with Pelosi (who, as a GOP spokesman pointed out yesterday, is from "San Francisco," and we all know what kind of people live there).

Granted, Pelosi was a disaster at that May 14 press conference, where she fumbled her notes, left the podium, returned to the podium, and made her complaint about the CIA. It's rarely smart politics for a liberal Democrat to question the CIA's veracity (even though the CIA is hardly comprised of Boy Scouts), and it's also quite obvious that Pelosi's public communication skills aren't exactly on a par with her reputably effective backstage skills. She has taken a hit in the polls as a result.

But none of this necessarily means that she can be demonized to the point where Republicans can pick up House seats in 2010. This often comes as a shock to strategists who work inside the Beltway, but the plain truth is that most voters generally don't pay much attention to a House Speaker, or care what the person is doing. The Democrats discovered this, much to their chagrin, in 1996.

Stung by the loss of the House in the '94 elections, they endeavored to make '96 a referendum on Gingrich - who was far more outspoken and controversial than the current speaker. Pelosi has her CIA stumble, and perhaps there will be more. The Republicans had better hope so, because the '96 Democrats went into battle with a long list of Newt negatives - the shutdown of the government (for which he was widely blamed); budget cuts of popular entitlement programs; a protracted legal probe into whether Gingrich had violated tax laws and House rules (he did); Newt whining that he had been dissed while traveling on Air Force One - and they still got nowhere with the voters.

I well remember sitting down with a top House Democratic strategist that year. He was convinced that the party would hang Newt around the necks of freshmen Republican congressmen, and defeat enough of them to retake the chamber. He recited a litany of Newt-led budget cuts, and kept saying, "I've got a bill, I've got a vote, I've got a quote." He was backed by a concerted Democratic effort to distort Newt's record and make it look worse than it was. (Newt was supposedly interested in having Americans "lose their Medicare," whereas, in reality, he was trying to cut the projected rate of growth.) The Democratic strategist also enthused about how organized labor was spending $35 million to help the party make Newt the face of the GOP.

Then came the actual '96 election. I saw this strategist one day later, and he looked downright sheepish, like he wanted to crawl under the floor.

To regain power, the House Democrats had needed to win at least 14 House seats. They won three. And that's because, barring some kind of political tsunami, it's very hard to successfully transfer the negatives of a House Speaker to an individual House member. Unless Nancy Pelosi inexplicably decides to forsake her inside game for a life of gaffes at the microphone, the House GOP may well be wise to find another bogeyperson to demonize.