WASHINGTON — DEMOCRATS on Capitol Hill are searching for a way out of the ruins.
Disoriented and divided, the party - in the minority for the first time since the 1950s - is groping for a new strategy. Surviving members are jostling for party leadership.
One contest in particular, Rep. Charles Stenholm versus Rep. David Bonior, will send a powerful signal of whether the Democrats cooperate with the Republican majority or obstruct its agenda.
Mr. Stenholm, a Reagan Democrat from Texas, is vying for party whip, the No. 2 slot in the House. The post is currently held by Mr. Bonior, an old-fashioned, pro-union, Rust Belt liberal from Michigan.
The outcome of the Stenholm-Bonior race on Nov. 30 will either put the Democrats squarely on the left with Bonior or swing them center-right with Stenholm.
``The key is Stenholm vs. Bonior,'' says Jim Thurber of American University in Washington. ``The Democrats have to move toward the center in the House. They've got to build a coalition around moderate Democrats and liberal Republicans.... They need to make the Republicans look extreme.''
But James Sundquist, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, argues against the wisdom of Democrats moving in Stenholm's direction.
``Any deliberate announcement of a move toward the center would stir the party,'' he says. The strength of the more liberal black and Hispanic Democratic caucuses grew after the election. ``Democrats in the House are more liberal than before. The moderates were defeated.''
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill would agree. They insist the Nov. 8 vote was a rejection of inefficient government - not an endorsement of the right. They say the central Democratic objective should be to encourage the Republicans to self-destruct.
If Bonior keeps his post, he will be a fiery opponent of House Speaker-in-waiting Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Last week, Bonior launched the first Democratic retort since the election, attacking a Republican proposal to abolish the House ethics committee.
Bonior says: ``The American people have to know where the contrasts are between the Republicans and Democrats. They will be the champions of corporate welfare. We will be the champions of working folks.''
Stenholm is more cautious. An advocate of deficit reduction, he supports a balanced- budget amendment and line-item veto - the first issues on the Republican ``Contract With America'' that will come before the House in January.
``If the Democrats are obstructionist, it will be seen as sour grapes,'' says John Haugen, Stenholm's press secretary. ``Nov. 8 was not just a referendum on Bill Clinton, but on the leadership of Congress. If the Democrats are to recapture Congress, they must change direction. Bonior ... won't change.''
More at stake
In the aftermath of the midterm elections, there is far more at stake for the Democrats than the passage of bills. The party's traditional base, rooted in labor and agriculture, is gone. So is the South. For the first time since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, Republicans won a majority of House seats in that region. If the party is to retain the White House and regain Congress in 1996, analysts say, it needs to realign and unify.
``The South is no longer `yellow-dog' Democratic. It may be yellow-dog Republican,'' says Stephen Hess, another Brookings scholar. ``The completion of the post-New Deal transition has been realized. It started when Eisenhower captured Virginia and Florida.'' With the House in GOP hands, the process is complete.
Charles Fant, press secretary for Rep. John Spratt (D) of South Carolina, agrees: ``The Democrats have not realigned since the New Deal, and the party needs to do so. It used to stand for labor, urban areas, Catholics, and Jews.''
Such a realignment will be tricky. If Democrats stay too far to the left, as under former House majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Bonior, they will risk not capturing the growing body of independents, who made up 24 percent of the voters in this last election. If Democrats shift to the center, they could alienate black and Hispanic voters, who provide safe seats.
Any realignment will have to reflect the increased prominence of minority Democrats. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a prominent black from Maryland, is mounting a credible challenge to Californian Rep. Vic Fazio to head the Democratic House Caucus.
But perhaps the biggest problem facing the Democrats is disunity. After four decades in the majority in at least the House, Democrats may have forgotten how to march in step.
``The R's are a tribe,'' says a Democratic Senate staffer, referring to the Republicans. ``The D's aren't. They lack party discipline. They lack a coherent ideology. They lack leadership.''
To overcome this in the legislative arena, Mr. Thurber argues, the Democrats on Capitol Hill will have to go issue by issue, working with the White House to build coalitions. Looking ahead to 1996, he says, the party needs to break with localized politics and find major national planks.
``The Democrats will have to pull rank for impact,'' agrees Mr. Fant.
Mr. Sundquist says the Democrats will have to decide whether to abandon their agenda or stick with their convictions. But citing historical examples of both parties waging triumphal returns two years after disastrous elections, he offers a reason for Democrats to be optimistic.
``The party in power creates dissatisfaction,'' he says. ``Politics is cyclical. The pendulum starts to swing back the day after an election.''