Those who thought Nancy Pelosi’s main problem as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives would be her extreme liberalism were wrong. It’s her lousy political instincts. She couldn’t last a week in a leadership position in the Texas Legislature. Pelosi has displayed two shortcomings that, if not corrected, will play into Republicans’ hands and imperil Democrats’ chances of holding on to their majority. First, she is oblivious to the big picture. Her penchant to play politics with the position of chair of the Permanent Select Commitee on Intelligence was the wrong fight at the wrong time. Pelosi sacked fellow Californian Jane Harman, who was in line to become chair, because of Harman’s hawkish views. The Democrats would have been well served by someone who gave the party credibility in the war on terrorism. Then she flirted publicly with the idea of handing the job to Alcee Hastings, who, as anybody who has been following the soap opera knows, is a former federal judge who was impeached for taking a bribe. Pelosi finally backtracked, but not before allowing the story to linger for days before telling Hastings he would not be chairman, while the assorted pundits had a field day with the idea of Hastings in that sensitive position. Did Pelosi forget that one reason Democrats regained control of the House was Republican corruption?

And while we’re on the subject of wrong fights at the wrong time, how dumb was it to inject herself into the choice of majority leader by backing John Murtha, of Pennsylvania, against the acknowledged frontrunner, Steny Hoyer of Maryland? Murtha too has a past that is tinged with scandal. If there is anything that an effective speaker has to be able to do, it is count votes. Murtha lost, 149-86. That’s 63 votes. How could she not have known that Murtha had no chance? Why did she divide her own caucus and put her members through a bitter fight if she had no chance to win? Or did she think that she was such a big deal that her endorsement of Murtha would suddenly change members’ minds? Both of these incidents were serious miscalculations that were carried out in public over a period of several days.

Pelosi has a chance to set things right by appointing Sylvestre Reyes of El Paso to be the next chairman of Intelligence. Reyes is a Viet Nam veteran who is deaf in one ear as a result of a war injury. He spent 26 years in the Immigration and Naturalization Service as a Border Patrol agent and rose to be in charge of the El Paso sector. Reyes immediately instituted Operation Hold the Line, in which he in effect built a human wall of agents and intercepted aliens crossing the border, a departure from INS policy at the time to apprehend illegals after they had already crossed. Auto thefts dropped by 30 percent, and other key statistics, such as babies born in El Paso hospitals, dropped as well. (Some Democrats thought that Rick Perry’s emphasis on border security in the recent election was a coded racist appeal to conservatives, but on the front lines of the immigration battle, most Hispanics welcome strict enforcement of the immigration laws.) With a name ID that was higher than most local politicians’, Reyes decided to run for Congress and was elected in 1996.

I interviewed Reyes last summer before an immigration hearing in Laredo. The restaurant at La Posada was awash with gladhanding politicians, but Reyes ignored the scene to talk about immigration. He is the most knowledgeable member of Congress on the subject of border security, but he was completely ignored by the Republican majority. His plan–fences only in urban areas, sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens, work permits to allow employers to hire alien workers legally, and a path to citizenship–is common-sense and workable. After Harman and Hastings, Reyes is next in line for the chairmanship of Intelligence. Pelosi should appoint him immediately. And then she should go read a biography of Sam Rayburn.