Washington — Waiting for the long, slow political tide to turn again in their favor, the Democrats in Congress are having to learn the role of opposition party. It is not coming easily.
As the tax dueling with the White House was carried into both houses of Congress this week, the Democrats were still split between two opposition strategies: Some want to sidle as close to the three-year Reagan tax-cut package as possible in order to "win" by claiming a stake in the outcome; others want to write their own, more distinctly "Democratic" tax package in committee, then risk a loss on the House floor for the sake of retaining party identify and tax-writing initiative.
No resolution among the Democrats appears in sight. At midweek, House majority leader Jim Wright of Texas was publicly floating a compromise offer of a three-year tax cut, the third year triggered by meeting targeted economic goals. At the same time, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois was signaling that all previous compromise tenders were off, that his committee would take its time over the next few weeks and develop its own business and personal tax-cut program.
What some political analysts might call Democratic disarray is, in Congressman Rostenkowski's case, more a lying back to see how things sort out.Conservative Democrats on his committee already have gone over to the Reagan side, the Republicans have the initiative with a bill of their own on the committee's desk, and the young liberal and moderate Democrats are aching for a fight.
There is still no Democratic tax package.
Rep. Barber Conable (R) of New York, the leading minority member of the tax-writing committee, chides the Democrats: "It would be wise to have specific [tax] proposals, rather than a redefining of the rhetoric of the working class." Rostenkowski alludes to a Democratic "consensus" he outlined April 9 -- a tax program shopping list he notes President Reagan borrowed heavily from in fashioning his own program.
For the Democrats, the problem is learning how to play a losing game.
Many of them are convinced the President's program is unsound, unfair, and inconsistent. "How many Republican versions are there?" taunts Rep. James shannon (D) of Massachusetts, a strapping, probing young Ways and Means Committee member. "They're using several sets of economic assumptions. Their depreciation schedule will be an enormous subsidy for business -- a negative tax rate for business. The public doesn't know that."
Congressman shannon and other young Democrats want to rake over the Reagan package and "write the best plan" they can, as if the country would be attentive to a tax debate strictly on effectiveness and merit.
But other Democrats think the public makes only the roughest of calcultions on issues like taxes, that a duel on tax details with the President would doom Democrats to defeat.
In the broad for recognition, the President has an overwhelming edge. The public does not pay a close attention to Washington policy battles as the politicians like to think. In the months since the inauguration, the public seems to be less, not more, familiar with economic issues. NBC News surveys show the number of Americans who said they had heard or read nothing about the President's federal spending and income-tax cuts rose from 19 percent to 26 percent.
Asked what kind of a job Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill (D) of Massachusetts -- chief Democratic spokesman on the Hill -- is doing as Speaker of the House, 44 percent of the public say they "haven't heard of him."
The Democrats have had several months to make their case against the President's proposals, but general public opinion still favors the White House.
The majority approving Reagan three- year, 10 percent-a-year tax cut slipped from 71 percent to 64 percent from February to May in the NBC News survey, but was still decisive. Americans think the Reagan proposals are only "somewhat likely" to reduceinflation. They preferred, 49 percent to 42 percent, the Democrats' one-year tax rate cut over Reagan's three-year cut.
But the political weight again favors the White House. Asked what difference their current congressman's vote for Reagan's proposals would make in their own balloting, 29 percent of the public said they would be "more likely" to vote for their congressman again, 11 percent "less likely," and 53 percent said it would make "no difference."
If the election were held at once, 43 percent of the public say they would vote for a Republican candidate in their congressional district, 35 percent Democratic, and 22 percent were unsure, the NBC News survey found.
With their leaders relatively unknown, the public inattentive to details that could gain them a toehold, the Democrats are attempting to learn out-of-power survival skills, to oppose without appearing obstructionist, and to wait until events work again in their favor.