Washington — First, President Reagan trounced them in the presidential election. Then he delivered a State of the Union speech about progress, patriotism, and heroines, and the Democrats responded with a film confessing their own party's failures. Even two of the most promising Democratic issues, tax simplification and arms control, have been snatched away by the Reagan White House, which is leading the way in both areas.
Democrats in Congress are befuddled, sometimes clumsy, and deeply divided as they grope for a strategy to contend with four more years of a Republican President who has won the heart of the American public.
US Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, who once articulated Democratic woes by calling Mr. Reagan ``Teflon coated'' because criticism doesn't stick to him, summed up her party's problem in a recent Monitor interview: ``Everybody in the Democratic Party thinks we should do at least three things. What we don't know is what they are.''
As indicated by interviews with a range of Democratic lawmakers, they fall into two distinct camps on their party's future. One group holds strenuously that the party has the right message and merely lacks a charismatic messenger to deliver it. These Democrats often cite the fact that their party gained two Senate seats and lost only about 15 in the House, despite the Reagan landslide last November.
The second camp, however, wants both a new message and a new messenger.
The ``new message'' group had the upper hand last week in the televising, under the auspices of the House Democratic leadership, of the apologetic Democratic film. But the grumbling afterward showed that neither viewpoint prevails.
Some Democrats ``are still walking around in the [Democratic House] Caucus saying it was the messenger,'' says Rep. Buddy Roemer (D) of Louisiana, a conservative who has been named to a committee to advise Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts on party strategy. ``I think it was the problem of the message.''
``What my party needs to add is common sense, concern for small business and the taxpayer,'' says the Louisianian, who, like some of his colleagues, harks back to John F. Kennedy as a model. Democrats have trouble dealing with Ronald Reagan, he says, ``because he is often right. Americans do want to be strong in national defense. The President is right: Taxes are too high; they're not too low.''
If Mr. Roemer is on the conservative edge of the party, he is far from alone in the ``change the message'' camp.
``What the Democratic Party must do is to regain our traditional position as the party of economic growth and prosperity,'' says Sen. George J. Mitchell of Maine, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He has the chief responsibility in his party's bid to retake the Senate in 1986, when 22 Republican and only 12 Democratic seats will be up for election grabs. The promise of individual opportunity and growth gave the Democratic Party its years of dominance, says Senator Mitchell, and those issues are the key to winning back the 25- to 40-year-olds ``who are not aware of that record and are not particularly interested in it.''
``We are the party that has enabled tens of millions of Americans to improve their lives through education, jobs, and environmental protection,'' says Mitchell. Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, who willingly accepts the label of a ``new ideas'' Democrat, says the national party has suffered because it has been afraid to act ``contrary to the wishes of its many constituency groups,'' such as labor and ethnic associations, ``and the American people have become offended by that.''
The former House member, who won the Senate seat from which Republican Howard H. Baker Jr. retired at the end of 1984, argues that the ``vast majority'' of congressional Democrats want to change the party's message so that it will be ``more attuned to the majority opinion in the country.''
That ``vast majority'' is not universal, however. Rep. John Bryant of Texas is among those who stand firmly in the ``We're OK'' camp of Democrats. ``Our problem has not been that we have been wrong on policy or issues,'' he says. ``Our problem is that we have not had the kind of leadership we need.''
He puts the blame on Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale, House Speaker O'Neill, and Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. ``Where are the folks who should be speaking out for us?'' Mr. Bryant asks.
Fellow Texas Congressman Mickey Leland agrees that the Democratic problems lie in leadership. ``We've got to come up with a candidate who can match the popularity of Ronald Reagan,'' he says.
As chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic National Committee's black caucus, Mr. Leland faces a growing backlash in his party against organized subgroups of blacks, other ethnic groups, and women. ``I fear these people who are ranting and raving about special interests,'' he says. ``These people who challenge us and our so-called special interests . . . must look at the number of votes we gave to the Democratic Party. Black people represent the real backbone of the Democratic Party.''
Leland warns that if party leaders turn away from black members, ``they're going to see a mass exodus'' to an independent movement and leaders such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Among other Democrats who argue that the party needs no overhaul is Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a freshman who predicts that events will overturn the Reagan popularity. ``I think there's a sense of forboding that the roller coaster is coming down,'' Mr. Harkin says, citing the crisis that has enveloped much of the agricultural community.
Harkin expresses a distinctly minority view among Democrats in Congress when he argues that his party should ``attack the Republicans with every ounce of energy.'' President Reagan is responsible for a major ``shift of money to the wealthy'' and a ``jungle mentality, '' the Iowan says. ``It's survival of the fittest. That's what it's all about.''
Sen. Paul Simon also holds that the Democratic Party line is basically on target. ``We've got to stick to being the party who helps the minorities, the down-and-outers, the middle-income and the lower-income [person] in need of a helping hand,'' says the newly elected senator from Illinois. ``What we need is a Harry Truman brand of leadership that's tough, that's compassionate, but also very practical.''
Such conflicting views do not make for simple answers for the Democratic future. In the short range, however, the party's leaders in both houses appear to have worked out a loose strategy. They are treading lightly in the face of the Reagan popularity.
Speaker O'Neill, a four-year warrior in the resistance movement against Reagan-ism, has bowed to the Reagan electoral victory and said he will allow the Reagan program a full hearing in the House.
``There's a new breed out there who don't appreciate the fact of how we [Democrats] changed America since the '30s and developed a Middle America,'' said the New Deal Democrat after a visit with the President last month. Some programs should be cut, Mr. O'Neill said, and an aide added later that the Speaker is ``not going to be out knee-jerk defending governmental agencies.''
That strategy will be tested sorely as the Democratic majority in the House deals with Reagan's austere domestic budget proposals. This week the House Budget Committee is staging hearings across the country that are already beginning to stir up protests from the groups facing cutbacks, a result that could put the party back in its old mold.
Meanwhile, Democrats are taking some comfort in one prospect -- the eventual departure of Reagan, who has been the glue holding the Republican factions together.
But congressional Democrats after four years are still puzzling over how to deal with a President who comes to give his State of the Union address during a time of severe budget cutbacks and manages to give the nation an uplift.