Democratic helm

LATE in 1980, on a US Senate floor empty but for a few colleagues of retiring Sen. Jacob Javits of New York, Democratic majority leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia paced while reciting a lengthy, eloquent tribute to his Republican friend.

It was a touch of institutional courtesy that goes unremarked outside a legislative chamber. But as such courtesies accrue over time, they can lay a foundation for a powerful career.

Mr. Byrd, whose red vests and fiddle playing contrast strongly with his cautious public statements, has just called in his courtesy chits again. Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida this week fell short in his challenge to Byrd for the Democratic leadership post. Byrd's was called an ''institutional'' victory, much like Thomas P. O'Neill's reelection to his top party post in the House - suggesting it was tainted by the inertia of old internal allegiances rather than suited to the new issues and political styles of the times. Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Byrd are no match for Ronald Reagan or Sen. Robert Dole, the new GOP Senate majority leader, the style argument goes. And neither Democrat is up to the major intellectual and programmatic overhaul the party has needed for three elections.

No one would defend the Democratic leaders for limitations they themselves acknowledge. But something should still be said for the old-fashioned skills of alliance building. It's up to the new would-be leaders and the new ideas to win their own way. Try long enough and hard enough to make it to the top, and at some point colleagues will say you've earned it.

Neither O'Neill nor Byrd tries to hog the limelight on ideas or programs. They are the kind of leader that ambitious and able legislators should want, if they hope to advance by opportunity and merit.

The contrast being painted between the Democratic and Republican leadership is too stark. The GOP's Dole and assistant leader Alan Simpson were hardly picked just for their wit before the television camera. There was a hard-fought institutional contest on the Republican side of the aisle, too. Mr. Dole and Mr. Simpson won because they could fashion the alliances they needed.

Also, there was no Democratic vacancy in the House or Senate. To oust a standing leader, a party usually needs a compelling reason. The Democrats picked up seats in the Senate and the House; regaining Senate control is within Democratic range for 1986.

This said, it remains true that the Democratic House and Senate leaderships are not close enough to each other. It will likely take a presidential candidate of convincing stature to lead the party out of its doldrums.

In this era of entrepreneurial politics, where congressmen and senators stand on their own political tubs, raise their own money, do their own thing - often not even mentioning in their campaign ads what party they represent - a little institutional entrepreneurship of the O'Neill-Byrd variety still seems useful.

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