Those Democratic marshmallows

The Democratic house majority leader, Jim Wright, a truly amiable gentleman, got a "going over" the other morning from reporters who simply couldn't understand why he and his Democratic colleagues were so calm about Ronald Reagan's economic package.

Mr. Wright quietly said he couldn't accept the Kemp-Roth theories about "supply-side" economics which the President has embraced. He said Mr. Reagan's tax-cut proposals will be scrutinized carefully by the Democrats -- as will the spending reductions Mr. Reagain is requesting.

As Mr. Wright seemd to be putting it, the role of the Democrats in Congress this year was to refine the Reagan initiatives and come up with a distillation that would improve the legislation by avoiding abuses.

But why did Mr. Wright take this posture of "sweet reasonableness" a reporter asked. Why wasn't he shouting a bit if he and other Democrats, particularly those who still called themselves liberals, were in disagreement with the basic, conservative philosophy of the Reagan approach?

How, the reporter asked, could there be a meaningful debate in Congress if the Democrats were going to sound more like a group of thoughtful college professors than Democratic politicians whose cause and philosophy were being challenged by a Republican President?

Perhaps the Democratic opposition in Congress will become more vocal and combative as the weeks go by. But it seems to have decided to go along with the popular Mr. Reagan, at least for a while, lest it get into serious political trouble with constituents back home. Mr. Wright is particularly mindful of the voters after suffering a bit of a scare in last fall's election. He won by 62 percent, but the GOP challenge was big enough to cause Mr. Wright to sniff the political wind and decide that a strong, conservative breeze was blowing in Texas.

Former GOP national chairman Bill Brock (now special trade ambassador) has also told reporters that, if the Democrats in the House, where they hold a majority, become "obstructionists" to the Reagan program, the President will punish them with "raw power."

By "raw power," Mr. Brock explained, he meant Mr. Reagan would dramatize his problems with the Democrats by using the veto and also by going directly to the public with a plea to throw them out of office in the 1982 elections.

Mr. Brock added, with a smile, he was willing to wager that, should this kind of confrontation ensue, "the Republicans will take over the House, as well as the Senate, in 1982."

Mr. Wright was told about Mr. Brock's threat, but this in no way cut into the Texan's compusure. He was not to be prodded or baited into a heated reply. As he saw it, the Democratic posture would be that of a responsible opposition that would carefully examine and seek to improve the Reagan proposals. He made it clear that he was not predicting an emotional, philosophical battle ahead.

Since this meeting with reporters Mr. Wright has outlined a possible counterattack to the President in a letter to his Democratic house colleagues. But, thus far, his response -- and those of other leading Democrats in Congress -- has sounded relatively soft and very tentative, much more like negotiation than a move to playing a leadership role in coming up with an alternative economic program.

So the Democrats are reading the election results and, in Lyndon Johnson's phrase, hunkering down. It's very strange. When can one recall a period when Democratic voices were so muted?

Even in the Eisenhower period, when Lyndon Johnson, then the Senate majority leader, played some ball with the Republican President and when conservative Democrats helped Ike carry through on his many vetoes, there wasn't this much willingness for Democrats to treat the President with kid gloves. "We may be moving into an era of Democratic compliance," a political analyst here says.

But if the Democrats are really going to be such marshmallows (and, maybe in the end, they will go back to being sharp-toothed tigers), then this President really is rolling.

He may not get all of his economic package, but he doesn't really expect to get all of it. He'll get a lot more than if his Democratic opposition were more aroused, more resistant. And one can bank on one thing:

If the Democrats do no more than bring about a refinement of the Reagan package, the emerging legislation will be accepted by the American public as a Reagan victory. In fact, the Democrats seem resigned to this victory -- and their own defeat.

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