Ready for Real Change

For Immediate Release:

May 2, 2008

Contact:Kimberley Strassel

Wall Street Journal

Settling in across from Steny Hoyer in his Capitol office, I tell the Maryland Democrat he'd "really make my day" if he'd use this interview to finally endorse Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for president. "I don't mind making your day," he says, with a smile that suggests he genuinely means it. "If it didn't mean unmaking mine," he finishes, still gleaming.

That's Mr. Hoyer. A quarter-century in Congress has gained him a reputation as the ultimate politician – ambitious but pragmatic, collegial but shrewd. Those skills helped crown him the youngest-ever president of Maryland's Senate, and propelled him to the U.S. Congress, where, in 2007, he became Democratic majority leader.

Mr. Hoyer describes last year – his party's first back in power after 12 of Republican House rule – as "successful," even as he admits to some disappointments. Party feuds kept Democrats from passing key initiatives, in particular a change in Iraq strategy. The bills they did pass often died in a filibustering Senate, or under President Bush's veto pen. Mr. Hoyer acknowledges this lack of legislative success might help explain Congress's dismal approval rating.

It may also explain why few people are looking forward to this November's presidential election more than the majority leader. He's counting on a Democratic president and a greater majority in the Senate to make his life easier. "The election of '06 was a change election, but what became clear last year was that [the voters] only elected one-third of the policymakers – the House of Representatives," he says. "Two-thirds of the Senate was not elected in '06; the president was not elected in '06. . . . So I think this is the big change election. The American public is going to have to decide whether they want to stay the course or whether they want to change the course . . . If they want to change the course, they'll vote for Democrats in the Congress and a Democrat for the presidency – and then they can hold us accountable for what we do."

To the extent Democrats notched legislative victories last year, it was Mr. Hoyer who was pounding out a consensus. Viewed by his colleagues as a moderate, the majority leader acknowledges that "one of the strengths I have is being able to work with people of different views." That was tested last year, as he sought to find common ground between his party's liberal bloc (eager to re-flex its congressional muscles) and its more conservative Democrats (many facing tough re-elections in red-state America.)

Despite the divisions, Mr. Hoyer feels last year "we were the most unified the Democratic Party has been in over half-a-century." His own strategy for bringing that about? "First of all work very hard at communications, find out what people can do and can't do. Secondly, put together a consensus that, while it may not be the first choice of everybody, it is a choice they can live with."

Mr. Hoyer credits this approach with the Democrats' successes. He brings up the famous "Six" initiatives House Democrats campaigned on in 2006, several of which made it to a signing ceremony: a hike in the minimum wage, a bill implementing 9/11 recommendations, more money for student loans and modest energy legislation. He boasts Democrats passed their 2007 appropriations bills and imposed "ethics reform" on lobbyists. Despite the continued uproar over pork, he gamely argues his party made "substantial progress" on reforming earmarks. (Mr. Hoyer, one of the House's top recipients of earmark money, prefers to call them "congressional initiatives.")

The majority leader also likes to point out that "much of the legislation we passed has been passed in a bipartisan fashion, the [January, $150 billion] stimulus bill being the most recent example . . . So it just hasn't been a narrow partisan agenda."

The flip side is that a lot of bills never made it to the floor, given Republican success at exploiting Democratic divisions. By remaining unified themselves, and occasionally peeling off a few in the opposition, the GOP was able to block Democratic attempts to create a timeline for getting out of Iraq, to close Guantanamo Bay, and to rewrite President Bush's wiretapping law. It also used procedural moves that forced Mr. Hoyer and Speaker Pelosi to occasionally pull legislation – lest they force vulnerable members into votes that could hurt them in this year's election.

Mr. Hoyer acknowledges this and, in fact, when I ask what lessons he took away from last year, he turns to his opponents. "I think one of the lessons is that you've got to anticipate the unexpected, and you've got to anticipate that the minority will try to, if not substantively, then procedurally, undermine your progress," he says. Mr. Hoyer recalls former Republican Minority Leader Bob Michel, who preceded Newt Gingrich.

"Michel's theory was that he wanted to work positively to create good legislation. Gingrich's theory was as long as you did that, the Democrats who were in charge would be perceived as being successful, so really what you needed to do was muck up the works. Gingrich did that," says Mr. Hoyer, then adds, laughing, "and we helped him." Mr. Hoyer also lauds former GOP Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirkson, who in the 1960s "helped [President Johnson] and the majority Democrats achieve what he felt were worthwhile objectives."

I ask Mr. Hoyer if he feels House Democrats helped Republicans achieve their goals in the most recent 12 years the GOP ran the House. "From time to time, but not all the time, certainly," he responds. "We learned some of those lessons from Mr. Gingrich . . . so I think there was some sense that, well, okay, we can play that game as well. But I think the American public [is] frustrated by that, I think the members are for the most part frustrated by that."

Mr. Hoyer was certainly frustrated by it, and even more so by the ability of the GOP to halt House-passed bills in the closely divided Senate. He suggests this political reality has caused his party to reorient their expectations, at least in the near-term. "I think we got through that initial deep disappointment on our side, the desire to get everything done that we said we would get done, and the frustration that we haven't been able to do that. Again, I want to stress that I think we had a very successful year . . . But we couldn't get a lot of it, or some of it, through the Senate."

While Mr. Hoyer may wish everyone would get along again now that Democrats are back in power, Republicans have shown no signs of unilaterally disarming. Since the stimulus package, Mr. Hoyer has passed a budget and a new tax hike on oil companies – but not much else.

His list of priorities is long, including a "higher education" bill, climate-change legislation, a bogged-down surveillance bill, a farm bill and a fix for the alternative minimum tax. He hopes Democrats will take another run at more funding for the State Children's Health Insurance program, a bill Mr. Bush vetoed last year. And he admits the election itself might drive legislation, in particular on Iraq, education or health care. "Some of the issues the presidential camps will be talking about, we'll be talking about," he says.

This agenda would be tough in any year, potentially impossible in an election environment. Mr. Hoyer remains optimistic, but he's even more enthusiastic about the prospect of Democratic electoral gains this fall, which would make that agenda, plus much more, eminently achievable.

"I think we'll pick up north of 10" new House Democrats, he predicts. He lays most of his party's potential at the feet of retiring Republicans. "You've got 29 Republicans that have already decided they're not going to run again. I think in part that's because they feel very uncomfortable in a party that is becoming increasingly conservative and very social-issue oriented, as opposed to fiscally oriented, business oriented . . . There are a lot of Republicans that feel uncomfortable in that environment, and they're getting out."

He's also feeling confident about his "majority makers," the group of 41 freshmen who returned Democrats to power in 2006. Many of them hail from more conservative areas of the country, areas that may not look as favorably on Ms. Pelosi's goal of shutting down Iraq or making it easier to organize unions. "Most of [the 41] are in tough districts, that is say, swing districts, but all of them are in very good shape. They've [raised more money than] their challengers, some by a very significant amount." Mr. Hoyer likewise feels good about Democrats' challengers in open seats. "By definition, the reason [the Republicans] got out [of these seats] is because they are moderate and don't feel comfortable in their party. That's a district in which we Democrats have a real shot."

On presidential politics, Mr. Hoyer is a bit more tempered, though only slightly. He has very positive things to say about both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, though it's "probably not" great if the primary drags on forever. "I think the earlier it is resolved, the more able we are to focus our resources on the opposition rather than on ourselves," he notes. "Having said that, while contested conventions are not the rule anymore, they were the rule a century ago."

Mr. Hoyer believes Republicans picked the "toughest" of all the GOP contenders. "McCain has appeal beyond his party. Because the party is unpopular, his maverick status, while making him unpopular in his party, appeals to independents who say, 'well, I want someone who isn't necessarily the party person.'"

He's even feeling confident about going head-to-head with Mr. McCain on the issue that has dogged Democrats in recent elections: national security. "Republicans will try to practice the politics of fear in this election, as they have in the past," says Mr. Hoyer. "But remember, it has been the Democratic Party which has historically confronted the terrorists of their times, whether it was the Kaiser in the First World War, the Nazis in the Second World War, the communists which Truman confronted and contained with the Truman doctrine, Kennedy and Cuba, Clinton even more recently in Bosnia. Frankly, the only Republican who is in that group is essentially Ronald Reagan."

I interrupt Mr. Hoyer here, and teasingly ask him if he really wants this Reagan compliment on the record, given all the grief Mr. Obama recently received from Mrs. Clinton for praising the Gipper.

He doesn't get the joke at first and tells me I can keep it in. Then he catches on, laughs, and looks like a man who – while he might have a very tough job right now – can still count his blessings. "You know, the good news is that I'm not running for president."