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Maybe Nancy Pelosi should just pack it in even before she takes over as the House Democratic leader.

Here she is, just elected as the first woman ever to hold such a job in either party, and along comes the Economist, the cheeky British newsmagazine, pronouncing her "a disaster for the Democrats." That's a big achievement, considering she hasn't had a chance to do anything yet.

The New Republic, the once and sometimes still liberal magazine, suggests that no matter what she does, she's doomed. "Even if she does stake out sensible positions on the issues," its editors write this week, "her background will make it hard for her to frame them effectively." And you thought that in this country, someone's background shouldn't affect her capacity to achieve.

Note that neither of these comments comes from Republicans, who have barely begun to roll out their stock cry of "Liberal! Liberal! Liberal!" Pelosi's Democratic critics and the mainstream press have been doing much of the Republicans' work for them.

Fortunately for Pelosi, there is another view of her potential. Consider the following reaction to her election from one of her colleagues. "It's good news for human rights," this congressman said, "and it's good news for people living under repressive regimes around the world."

These thoughts come not from another San Francisco liberal, but from Rep. Chris Cox, a conservative Republican from California's Orange County. Cox, one of the staunchest and smartest conservatives in the House, knows Pelosi better than most people. For a decade, Cox and Pelosi have constituted a two-person congressional freedom squad fighting for the rights of dissidents all over the world.

They have been tough on dictatorships everywhere, and a special thorn in the side of China's communist apparatchiks. Cox can offer a long list of Chinese dissidents on whose behalf he and Pelosi have made appeals - to our government, to the Chinese government and to the world - and with some success.

You think Pelosi is a rigid partisan who doesn't even know what Republicans look like? Just two weeks ago, Cox and Pelosi sat down together over dinner at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican haunt not much frequented by Democrats, to consider how to advance the cause of Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. "What I found over time," Cox says, speaking of human rights, "is that we are in very nearly perfect agreement on this issue, and it made it very easy to work together."

No, Cox isn't about to join the Democratic caucus. He and Pelosi are about as far apart as you could imagine on the basic issues of taxing, spending and regulating that divide the two major parties. But his comments are refreshing as a break both from the usual partisan bilge and from the cartoon view of Pelosi that is coming to dominate journalism.

Of course Pelosi is a liberal. But being a liberal - as the word plainly implies - should entail a love for liberty. What Pelosi has shown is that being a liberal can mean being very tough when it comes to holding bad regimes, communist and otherwise, to standards of decency.

As for whether Pelosi will be good or bad for the Democrats, that depends on how skilled she is at using the advantages she enjoys.

In 2002, as analyses by Ruy Teixeira for the American Prospect and James Barnes of the National Journal have shown, the Democrats had two distinct problems. They didn't mobilize their base as much as the Republicans did theirs. And they lost ground in the suburbs, particularly, as Barnes contends, among white married couples with children.

Pelosi could help with both problems. Her strong views could begin to remobilize the base. And her experience as a mother of five children (and, by the way, as someone who did not run for office until she had raised her kids) could give her an opening to the very voters Barnes identifies as critical to the future.

Pelosi has one other thing going for her. The dumbest thing Democrats did was to underestimate George W. Bush and his toughness. Being underestimated could prove to be just as much of an asset to Pelosi - and her opponents would be just as dumb to underestimate her.

Washington Post Writers Group

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