What the Democrats did and didn't do

One would think from looking at all the newspapers, news magazines and TV political specials that only the President and the Republicans were around during 1981.

The Democrats were here, too. They obviously were overshadowed by the new administration. But it's worth a moment to assess their record - pluses and minuses. This is it:

Q: What was wrong with the Democrats?

A: They couldn't put their act together. With a majority in the House and a near-majority in the Senate there was an expectation in Washington political circles that they would restructure the Reagan initiatives and thus play a major role in shaping the nation's course.

They didn't. Their impact on the Reagan economic program, on his cuts in spending and taxes, was negligible. And they suffered much embarrassment as conservative Democrats jumped ship to help Reagan push his programs through.

Q: What was right with the Democrats?

A: They showed a sense of history. Their leaders, O'Neill, Byrd, and Wright, for the most part dealt graciously with their defeats and with the generally defensive posture in which they found themselves. They had enjoyed control. Now that it had slipped from their grasp, they weren't going to be nasty about it.

Their political message might be summed up: ''Okay, the President is getting his way for the moment. But it won't last long. He'll flounder when his economic plan starts to take hold. And then we'll be back.''

But their real attitude was more detached than that - and from it came this rather objective message:

''We've been in a long while. And we got a lot of good things done. Now, perhaps, it is time to do things a little differently. Perhaps we went too far in some instances. So, maybe a change is necessary.''

It was easy for the Democrats to be philosophical about their lot. Most of them were finding little support among their constituents to fight the President tooth and nail. Instead the folks back home were saying, ''Give the President a chance.'' And so they did. But in the process they at times almost faded from view.

So, despite allegations to the contrary, the Democrats came out of a year of adversity not in disarray but still unified enough to regroup in 1982 and, possibly, make more of a statement in the ensuing months. If predictions come true that further extension of Reaganomics, particularly additional spending cuts, are in for some rough weather, the Democrats now seem poised to make their presence known.

Q: Was there any other reason for the general atmosphere of quiet that surrounded the Democrats and the party in 1981?

A: Yes, there was a decided void in Democratic leadership. There was no spokesman. President Carter had earned the title. But his party wasn't quick to bestow it on him. Further, Mr. Carter retreated from making public utterances for about half of the year.

Some Democrats spoke out a bit: Kennedy, O'Neill, Mondale. But they didn't get the public's attention - mainly because they didn't have an alternative program to the one being pushed by the President.

In fact, they usually sounded a bit ''me-tooish.'' They disagreed with Mr. Reagan on some particulars but they usually ended up by saying that spending cuts must be made. It never amounted to a very persuasive minority report.

Q: What about the Democratic ''pluses''?

A: They kept their cool, relatively speaking.

Also, they kept making their points: that the big Reagan tax cuts were excessive, that they would result in a gigantic deficit, that the spending cuts would be too painful for the disadvantaged.

The Democrats turned out to be in the minority. Sometimes all a minority can do is to state its case so that all can hear. The Democrats did that. They have warned the public. If Reaganomics flops, the Democrats will take the credit for sounding the alarm.

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