Was it "Meet the Press" or the Sci-Fi Channel? Watching Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., make her first Sunday morning TV appearance since being elected House minority leader, I had to check the cable box twice to make sure.
The woman answering Tim Russert's questions might have looked like Pelosi but she sounded like a character from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." What had happened to the congresswoman from California? Gone was the bold, combative, impassioned, progressive politician we've come to know over her 15 years in the House. In her place was a soulless pod person -- an empty shell mouthing the kind of pallid, inoffensive, focus group-tested and cringe-inducing platitudes that have driven two-thirds of the American electorate away from politics -- and a little more than half of the remaining one-third away from the Democratic Party.
I couldn't help but wonder: Had head pod Terry McAuliffe given her a whiff of some life-sucking spores?
How else to explain, for example, Pelosi's mealy-mouthed response to the all-important question of war with Iraq. The only member of the Democratic leadership to vote against the president's resolution on the use of force, she had been unequivocal in her opposition to the war. "I have not seen," she said in September following a White House meeting with President Bush, "intelligence to justify the action that the president is suggesting."
But there she was, just 72 hours after her historic ascendance to her new post, vowing to back the president -- even if he decides to unilaterally attack Iraq without U.N. approval. "If our young people are called to duty," she said, "certainly we'll support the action of the president."
I had to turn up the volume on my TV set to make sure I was hearing her right. Sure enough, pod Pelosi was coming out foursquare in favor of backing our fighting men and women -- having conveniently skipped right over the question of whether they should be put on the front lines in the first place.
And when Russert asked her to reconcile this with her previous opposition, she dismissed him with a curt, "That's neither here nor there now. Let's put that aside." And so they did. Even when the specter of Pelosi's former self appeared and suggested, "I do think that we can raise some questions before sending [our troops] into harm's way," she still refused to raise even a single one. Who then, if not one of the heads of the, nominally, opposition party is going to raise these questions? Paul Wolfowitz, perhaps?
She was similarly compliant when it came to the president's handling of the war on terrorism. Unlike her counterpart in the Senate, Tom Daschle, who chided Bush for not having "made any real progress" in the war on terror, Pelosi gave the president two thumbs up, contending that when it comes to combating terror, Americans "are in better shape now than we were last year."
Pelosi even tried to put a positive spin on the fact that Osama bin Laden is still on the loose -- and, according to U.S. intelligence, very much alive -- making the startling claim that the al-Qaida mastermind isn't really "such an essential piece" of the war on terrorism. And John Muhammad was only tangentially involved with the sniper attacks, I suppose. So we have reason enough to bomb Iraq into the Stone Age, but Osama isn't worth losing sleep over?
Turning her gaze on the smoldering ruins of Election Night 2002, Pelosi offered up some Churchillian language. "Never again," she promised, "will you see a situation where the Democratic Party will go forth into an election with the Republicans characterizing who we are, but without a Democratic message to inoculate against that mischaracterization." But when she tried her hand at delivering that message, the best she could manage were shopworn banalities about plans to "grow the economy" and "create jobs." I'm afraid that inoculation is in need of a serious booster shot.
To hear pod Pelosi tell it, her leadership role is all about finding the political middle. "We must seek our common ground with the administration," she told Russert. And I lost count of the number of times she used the word "consensus" during her appearance. In truth, the last thing the Democrats need right now is another champion of compromise -- another Dick Gephardt. Why does she think he stepped down in the first place? Because he didn't seek enough consensus?
"She has got her beliefs," Pelosi's communications director, Brendan Daly, helpfully explains. "But we are here to win, and she understands that to do that you need to be in the middle." Well, congratulations. Because based on Pelosi's inaugural appearances as minority leader-elect, yet another soulless middle-of-the-road leader is precisely what the Democrats -- and the country -- are about to get.
What is it about our system that the minute politicians are given a chance to lead, all they want to do is follow the pack? If the Democrats are really looking for a leader to help them return to power, the position, it seems, is still open.