A Whip Applied Twice Is Half A Whip

Politico is reporting that Pelosi has sent a fifth letter urging House Democrats to support authorization for military intervention in Syria:

“Pelosi, who says she won’t whip Syria vote, sends fifth letter in a week to colleagues…”

The tweet suggests—to me at least—that the repeated (public) calls to support authorization for military intervention in Syria amounts to whipping, even if not in name.  I write briefly to suggest that this is exactly the wrong inference to be drawn.

To cut to the chase, the notion of a whip in legislative politics is that of party pressure: of exercise of a command-and-control mechanism from party leadership on party rank-and-file: to “get in line,” as it were, on a given matter.

What is special about whipping is that it is not good old-fashioned lobbying: it is supposedly more impressive and effective precisely because it works.  We might disagree about why, but whipping is different than simple lobbying because it is based on partisan-caucus membership, as opposed to “good old fashioned pressure/persuasion.”

This picture is, in classically mysterious terms, enforced/sustained only by the use of it being quite nonobvious.  Parents among us will understand the importance of this feature when you think about expressions like “oh, when Dad used to get that look in his eye…,” “I did it because I knew Mom liked it done that way,” or—most fittingly—“oh, you never heard Mom/Dad say it twice.

Here, “the parent,” Nancy Pelosi, has said it publicly five times.  At some level, people might say—well, clearly she wants to have the effect of whipping the vote while saying she isn’t.  Really?  To believe this is to equate whipping the vote with getting the votes.  That’s like saying Peyton Manning didn’t care if he threw 7 TDs or had Ronnie Hillman run 3 TDs in, 2 TDs come from Danny Trevathan interceptions (okay, maybe too soon), and have the NFL grant him 14 legacy points.


Almost every leader cares not only about outcome, but also about the perception of how that outcome was achieved.  (See: why did Saddam Hussein—quite nonuniquely—hold elections that he was sure to win?)

If Pelosi was going to whip this, there’s no fifth letter.  Hell, there’s no first letter.  She’d simply remark in an off-the-cuff way, “the President will receive the support his request deserves from the House Democratic Caucus,” and that would be it.

Some have said—quite plausibly—that Pelosi can’t whip the vote even if she wanted to.  Maybe.  In fact, I think that’s probably right.  But, as my previous post elucidated, it’s not clear she wants to.  And, at this point in her career, I don’t think she has much to work for except her legacy and/or what she thinks is right.  Is intervention in Syria right?  I definitely don’t know.  But I do know that, in all likelihood, she wasn’t just randomly choosing whether and when to write public letters to her colleagues over the past couple of days.  She’s the freaking Minority Leader in the House.  This ain’t her first rodeo.

Of course, there’s a good story—in addition to, and not contradictory to, mine—about why she might not whip her caucus than “she doesn’t have the juice.”  In a nutshell: this story is called, “Hey Johnny B., how you like this upside-down version of Article I, Section 7?”

And with that, I leave you with this.