Democrats plot their comeback
Without control of the White House or Congress, they must find a balance between the 'new' and 'liberal' wings.
Not since the days when Americans liked Ike and loved Elvis have Democrats been so down and out in Washington.Skip to next paragraph
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For the first time in 45 years, the party will not control either the House, the Senate, or the Oval Office. It's a scenario that might be expected to cause a serious bout of collective soul-searching and rethinking of strategy for next time.
But so far, that's not the case. Party leaders say they are in good shape for congressional and gubernatorial elections in 2002, and have high hopes for the presidency in 2004. The party is better financed and organized than at any point in its history, and has a message that appeals to the majority of Americans - even if it's a slim majority.
"I don't think the Democrats need to go off on retreats, do navel gazing, and figure out what went wrong," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst here.
But other signs - especially internal tensions between moderates and liberals - indicate trouble may lie ahead for the party. Much depends on how successfully George W. Bush steers a middle course. Other potentially significant factors for the party are the economy and congressional redistricting, in which the Republicans are expected to pick up four or five seats.
But the main thing to watch in the months and years ahead, says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here, is the tension between "new" and "old" Democrats, or centrists and liberals.
President Clinton was able to hold together these factions through his political skill and the sheer force of his personality. But in the absence of Mr. Clinton's leadership, some say the tension between new and old Democrats could grow into a rift.
"Look at both labor and minorities," says Mr. Wittmann. "They achieved tremendous successes in this election in terms of turnout. They will be very reluctant to cut deals with Bush that are in the direction New Democrats want to go. You will see that tension over and over."
The Ashcroft test
The first real test could be the confirmation hearings for Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri for US attorney general. While Democrats on the Hill are promising fair hearings, African-Americans are pushing for the former Missouri senator's rejection. They cite Mr. Ashcroft's blocking of a black judge, Ronnie White, to the federal bench, as well as his overall grade of "F" from the NAACP.
Bush's choice for secretary of State and national security adviser were "excellent" appointments, says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation, but then "he comes back at the most critical level of civil rights appointments and he slaps the minority community in the face."
If Senate Democrats give Ashcroft too easy a pass, say analysts, that might further alienate the party's liberal wing.
A positive spin
For the time being, however, Democrats are putting a confident face on their party's prospects.
The chief reason there's no serious rethinking of the Democratic strategy or message is because Democrats believe they actually won on all fronts - losing the presidency on a mere technicality.
In the House, they picked up two seats, reducing their margin to a slim nine slots. In the Senate, they pulled even with Republicans. And Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes - winning more votes than Bill Clinton ever did. Meanwhile, for the first time in the party's history, the Democrats ended a presidential campaign financially in the black, to the tune of some $8 million.