Just because it’s a cliché doesn’t make it untrue. Washington, it’s often said, is a city run on “personal relationships.” Or, to drop the Beltway-speak and cut to the quick, it’s all about who you know. Steny Hoyer, Roy Blunt, and Trent Lott, with their 67 years of combined service in Congress, know a lot of people in and around the Capitol and that, more than anything else, is why all were elected to leadership posts last week.
All three faced major obstacles. For Hoyer’s bid to become House majority leader, it was that his opponent, Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, had the active backing of Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi and her allies. For Blunt’s campaign to keep his whip post in the House, it was a matter of overcoming the perception that he was part of an “old guard” leadership team that had presided over — and helped bring upon — the demise of the GOP House majority. Lott’s hurdle to become Senate minority whip was perhaps the greatest of the tree; he had to overcome the ridicule and rejection he’d experienced in being pushed by the White House from his position as Senate majority leader after praising former Sen. Strom Thurmond four years ago.
In addition to these immediate impediments, each also brought with them political baggage. A Hoyer win would end the Pelosi honeymoon in the press and resurrect the storyline about her questionable political skills, a Blunt win would raise the question as to whether the GOP really learned anything about why they lost their majority, and a Lott win would again bring up those nagging questions about Republicans and race.
Yet members of both chambers went into their party caucuses with all this in mind and still elected the three. Why? Because in the ritual that are congressional leadership elections, just like those in student government, relationships and popularity trump all — ideology, public perception, and even competence. To be fair, Hoyer, Blunt, and Lott are all skilled pols, adept at the bottom-line criteria of the positions they sought: winning votes. It can be argued, and some members have, that each was simply the more able candidate for his post.
But that ignores the tribal nature of Capitol Hill, with its many loyalties, rivalries, and long-held grudges. It also ignores the dynamics of each race, and the candidates who ran.
Causes Don’t Vote, Members Do
Steny Hoyer knows something about leadership elections and counting votes. He won election to the Maryland senate at 27 and was elected president of that body by his colleagues at 36. Before last week’s vote, he’d served in three previous leadership posts and had been on the ballot eight times in his 25 years in the House. In his last post, as minority whip, he’d spent four years cajoling fellow Democrats, lobbying them to hang together on the tough votes so as to make politically vulnerable Republicans make tough votes of their own.
He’s done it with a smiling, gregarious personality that has helped him develop, yes, close relationships with his colleagues. While Pelosi is known to show her machine-politics roots to members behind closed doors — threatening to yank prized committee assignments and other such perks if defied — Hoyer’s operating style run less to vinegar than honey. The word often used to describe him is “institutionalist.” He reveres the body and respects its members. And his collegiality isn’t just limited to the House floor. He’s campaigned across the country for his fellow Democrats, raising money, and offering other assistance while picking up chits along the way.
Indeed, while Hoyer’s camp pointed out just how many stops he’d made for candidates this past cycle, his opponent touted the exact number of television appearances he’d done to argue for withdrawing our troops from Iraq. So while Murtha bragged about what he’d done for the greater cause, Hoyer reminded the caucus — his constituency — what he’d done for the individual candidates. Causes, of course, don’t vote. But those individual candidates — now members — do.
And while Murtha spent more time on the campaign trail this cycle because of his newfound fame, his reputation with most rank-and-file members was already solidified long before he came out against the war. A top member of the Appropriations Committee, the gruff old Marine was somebody who most members only knew from those instances when they would go to him, hat in hand, to ask for earmarks for their districts. While such control over purse strings can — and does — engender power, it does not foster loyalty. That can only come from a relationship cultivated over mutual interests and goals.
Roy Blunt has developed similar friendships since being elected to the House in 1996. He was his freshman class’s representative to the GOP caucus’s Steering Committee, which doles out committee assignments. As Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, a House chief of staff at the time, recalls in The Almanac of American Politics, Blunt was “the one person every single member of his class felt like they could go to solve a problem.” Appointed chief deputy whip by then-majority whip Tom DeLay in 1999, Blunt ascended to his current position in 2002, after heading a program that cycle which sent cash to targeted races.
By contrast, Blunt’s opponent, John Shadegg, has held one minor leadership post, but was otherwise seen as but another outspoken and unvarnished conservative member of the Republican Study Group (RSC). Like his fellow RSC members, Shadegg has railed against spending and the expansion of entitlements. And though he’s done it with a more amiable demeanor than others in the coalition, Shadegg nevertheless was viewed, fairly or not, as more bomb thrower than leader. Sure, he could speak out for his principled brand of conservatism, but could he bring together the caucus and count votes? As Rep. Jim Gerlach, a moderate Pennsylvanian explained it after the contest, “The [House GOP] Conference is very comfortable with these members,” alluding to Blunt and John Boehner, who also was easily reelected over RSCer Mike Pence. It was that comfort level that gave Blunt 137 votes, many of which came from Republicans more ideologically in line with Shadegg.
The story was much the same across the Capitol. Indeed, Trent Lott, a former Ole Miss cheerleader and fraternity president, almost makes Hoyer and Blunt look introverted by comparison. Like Hoyer, Lott is a creature of Congress who got his start in Washington as a Hill staffer. Lott parlayed his chief of staff position into a House seat of his own when his boss retired in 1972; he moved over to the Senate in 1988. And also like Hoyer, Lott is no stranger to the unique dynamics of party leadership votes. When he was elected minority whip 25-24 last week, it marked the sixth leadership post he’s been elected to in his 34 years in Congress.
By comparison, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) was only elected to the Senate in 2002. Though long a national political figure thanks to his successful gubernatorial record and presidential bids, Alexander was not the known commodity in the “World’s Most Exclusive Body” as his Mississippi colleague. What’s more, Alexander is seen more as a wonk than a backslapper. And as Lott argued to his colleagues, the post demands less thinking than counting. As Alexander found out after claiming he had a majority in hand, that is something that Lott knows how to do.
Elections and majorities come and go, but the fundamental nature of Congress stays the same. Parties and individuals may be reproached by their leaders (Hoyer), the voters (Blunt) or even their president (Lott), but there aren’t a whole lot of votes in those three categories when a caucus is meeting. It is there, behind closed doors and with a secret ballot in hand, that personal relationships always win.
– Jonathan Martin is NRO’s political reporter.