Democrats still on the defensive

Despite winning an election the Democrats are still on the defensive. This was illustrated just before the end of the special session of Congress when reporters were questioning Democratic House leader Jim Wright.

Q: You have just said you are going to vote for the domestic-content bill. And isn't that equivalent to the Smoot-Hawley tariff of a number of years ago?

A: I don't think it is the equivalent of the Smoot-Hawley tariff. That tariff expressly denied entry to goods from abroad. It did a lot of things that are different from this bill.

This bill merely says that a certain percent of certain products in certain industries must be built in the United States with American labor. It doesn't say the Toyota people couldn't come over here and put up a factory and build something.

I don't want to get into a quarrel about it. I didn't have a part in the drafting of that legislation. I am going to vote for it.

Q: My memory is that most Republicans years ago had to be dragged screaming into the acceptance of free trade. The Democrats were there first. Now, although it may be a relative situation, aren't the Democrats now positioning themselves on the other side of free trade? And isn't Mr. Reagan positioning himself on the more liberal side?

You see this in Mondale rhetoric. And you now see it in Democratic-supported legislation. Is it possible that the President may take the free trade issue away from you?

A: Laughter from Mr. Wright.

Q: You're laughing. But the President has the less-government issue. He's got the military buildup issue. There's a lot of public support for these things. And a lot of people like his less-taxes approach. And now, if he gets the free trade issue: Doesn't that put him still in a pretty strong position? Isn't the President getting, in terms of public perception, on the side of if not good issues at least very persuasive issues?

A: I've done the bEst I can with the free trade thing. I acknowledge that there is a resurgence of protectionist sentiment among Americans. I deplore it, while acknowledging it. It is a product of the recession and the hard times.

The way to get out of it is to get back into good times - to get the economy going again so that we are not in the dog-eat-dog situation quite to the extent we are today. Instead of dividing up relatively little, we ought to be thinking instead in terms of building and developing relatively more so that there would be relatively more to share.

But, yes, what you say is partly true. And yes, the President does have some popular issues. But we've had a national election and the American people have said, ''No, we don't want Reaganomics and, no, we don't want rubber-stamps in Congress and, yes, we do want people who will think for themselves and create some new approaches to these problems and we do believe the Democrats do offer a more responsive alternative.''

Now does the President have appeal? I've already acknowledged that he is a charming man.

Mr. Wright's comments should not be taken out of context. Much of the hour he was portraying a resurgent Democrat)c House that was gearing up to play a leadership role in shaping the direction of government. He looked confident. He was doubtless buoyed by the elections and all those bright, new Democratic colleagues.

But reporters filing out after the session spoke of the ironies reflected in Mr. Wright's comments: Not only the Democrats giving up the free trade issue to the Republicans but also a Democratic Party that was still dealing deferentially with the still-popular President.

Mr. Wright talked about a House where the conservatives would no longer be willing to participate in a winning Reagan coalition. He made a strong case for a Congress where the President would no longer be able to work his will.

But Mr. Wright and other Democratic leaders aren't talking about imposing or trying to impose their will on Congress and the President - even though they control the House and nearly control the Senate. For example, they aren't bent on reversing the ideological counterrevolution that Mr. Reagan put in place through cuts in social programs.

They may contend that there is no real conservative trend in this country. They may argue that Mr. Reagan got in mainly because of anti-Carter feeling. Yet they aren't about to contest the Reagan thesis that there still is a majority out there that wants less government and less government spending.

The defensiveness of congressional Democrats was apparent in the last two years. They fought Reagan initiatives - but not with passion. They checked voter sentiment and found widespread support for the President's less-government approach. So they opposed him to a point - and then caved in.

Now, buoyed by increased numbers, the Democrats may be more resolute in their resistance to Mr. Reagan. But somehow they still are on the defensive. Perhaps they are aware that many Democrats voted Democratic last time because of local issues and that the President, by and large, still is in tune with the times.

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