The Democrats' Defeatism

THE Democratic Party may be on the ropes but it is not yet down for the count. Remembering that might well be crucial to its avoiding a Republican sweep in the 1992 elections. The claim that '92 will be a boom year for Republicans will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the party can't muster someone besides George McGovern or Paul Tsongas to be its standard bearer; if Democratic congressional incumbents decide that 1992 is a good year to retire; or if strong Democratic challengers choose to wait until 1994 to make a run against Republican congressional incumbents.

The lion's share of Republican congressional losses in the wake of Watergate in 1974, and the Democrats' losses in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis and double-digit inflation in 1980, came not because the voters ``threw the rascals out,'' so much as because the party that everyone thought would lose failed to muster strong candidates. Nearly one out of seven Republican members of the House of Representatives retired in 1974, leaving open seats for the Democrats to capture more easily.

In 1974, nearly four out of 10 Democrats who challenged incumbent Republicans (compared to only one out of seven Republican challengers) were experienced candidates who had held prior elective office. Strong congressional challengers - public figures with a track record - stand a much better chance on election day because they raise more money, build better campaign organizations, and are more likely than unseasoned nominees to be known by voters.

It is up to individual Democrats to decide whether or not to confront the strong Republican candidates who will be looking for a shot at a congressional seat. If strong Democratic challengers do not emerge, the Republicans will surely win.

For many senior Democratic members of the US House, the option of retiring may be particularly tempting: 1992 marks the last year that a loophole in a House ethics law will permit senior members to retire and pocket all the unused money remaining in their campaign coffers. One hundred and nine Democrats in the House are eligible to retire and convert their unused campaign kitties to personal use; 43 stand to pocket $250,000 or more. Democrats such as Dan Rostenkowski (Ill.), Sam Gibbons (Fla.), Tom Bevi ll (Ala.), or Jamie Whitten (Miss.) may believe the apocalyptic predictions and decide to bow out.

If House Democrats take the money rather than run, their actions will boost the Republicans' chances of becoming the majority party in Congress.

Potential Democratic candidates should be wary of the prognosis that George Bush and the GOP are invincible in 1992. Public support for Mr. Bush, inflated by the success of Desert Storm, will fall, and it will fall fast. Presidential popularity rarely has much staying power. Democrats need to remember that in June 1945, just after the surrender of Germany, a whopping 87 percent of the American public approved of President Harry Truman's handling of his job as president. But over the next 15 months, Trum an's approval rating plummeted 55 points.

For two months the Bush administration enjoyed a virtual monopoly over what Americans saw, heard, and read in the news media. This, coupled with the virtual absence in the media of any credible elite opposition to - let alone spirited debate about - the war produced opinions consistent with the only messages and images that people were exposed to.

This monopoly will not characterize the next year and a half as the recession and the myriad of problems the country confronts on the home front return to the political agenda. The Republican party's failures on the domestic front leave Democratic candidates a great deal to talk about.

Americans are not applauding Bush's handling of the economy. Americans don't think Bush has made much progress dealing with the drug problem, improving education, protecting the environment, or helping the homeless. Furthermore, the Office of Management and Budget projects that the federal budget deficit, which candidate Bush pledged to reduce, will hit $318 billion in 1991 - roughly double the deficit that existed when Bush took office. And of course, the $78 billion needed to pay the 1991 tab on the savings and loan bailout doesn't help matters much.

The Republicans' solution to these budget constraints, no doubt, will be yet another round of cuts in social programs - cuts that will be unpopular with most Americans.

The challenge for Democrats who look toward the 1992 elections is to not roll over and play dead. There are a lot of issues to talk about, but without strong congressional and presidential candidates to carry on this debate, a Republican sweep is assured.

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