HOUSE Speaker Thomas Foley says Congress did get a message from the New Hampshire primary.
It is, says the Washington State Democrat, that President Bush couldn't get away with blaming Congress for his administration's failure to turn the recession around.
But was there also a lesson for congressional Democrats - whose economic package centers on a middle-class tax cut - in the New Hampshire victory of Paul Tsongas, a fiscally conservative Democrat who vocally opposes their plan?
The Democratic leadership implies not. Former Senator Tsongas won 34 percent of the vote because he's from neighboring Massachusetts, and because Bill Clinton, who was poised to win New Hampshire, stumbled, say top congressional aides.
Mr. Tsongas's pro-business message was only part of the mix, they say.
Furthermore, Tsongas may not be the front-runner for long. The day after New Hampshire, Speaker Foley went so far as to call Clinton the Democratic front-runner, in apparent anticipation that the Arkansas governor will soon win primaries away from Tsongas's home turf. The 'other Greek' stigma
The real problem, says a senior House Democratic aide, is that Tsongas is "another Greek from Massachusetts," raising the specter of a repeat of 1988.
Whatever the reason, Congress's Democrats are virtually ignoring Tsongas.
By many accounts, Tsongas's name came up only in passing at House Democratic caucus meetings called last week to remake the Democrats' tax package. His emphasis on economic growth over tax fairness has not been discussed, participants say.
"There was a message for the Democratic leadership in Tsongas's victory, but it's too late for them to do anything about it," says James Glassman, editor of the newspaper "Roll Call," which covers Congress. "They've already committed themselves to the 'fairness' issue. What Americans want are jobs, not higher taxes on the rich."
"Tsongas makes the leadership nervous," says a former longtime Democratic Capitol Hill aide. "He represents the farthest-right 10 percent of the party; he's more like a moderate Republican. Project it out and you see a rift in the party."
In one school, says the former aide, the thinking goes like this: We, the Democrats, have the high ground. The 1980s were a decade of greed. President Bush is out of touch. And we have to draw a hard line on middle-class issues.
The other school of thought, he says, represents the moderate Southern Democrats and neo-liberals, who feel the party does not look capable in managing economic matters and who urge against corporate-bashing, which looks anti-jobs.
"Tsongas represents probably a stronger-than-average version of the second view; the leadership is afraid he'll divide Democrats," says the ex-aide. "Clinton is trying to bridge both groups." No more scapegoats
Tsongas's victory speech couldn't have been more blunt: "We must change our rhetoric," he said. "No more corporate-bashing. No more protectionism. No more Japan-bashing. No more class warfare."
While Clinton supports a middle-class tax cut, he does not talk the protectionist line of Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey (who got only 12 percent in New Hampshire) or House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, not a candidate but reportedly poised to jump into the race if Clinton falters badly.
Bush operatives have seized on Tsongas's victory as a sign that the Democrats are divided.
"The economics he's talking right now [are] pretty close to the president and it's a repudiation of what the (tax-writing) Ways and Means Committee and these Democrats in Congress are doing," Charles Black, a senior adviser to Bush's campaign, told a Monitor breakfast on Friday.
"He's even said it's not necessary to tax the rich; what's necessary is investment incentives to get growth," Mr. Black continues. "Sounds like George Bush. Even sounds like Jack Kemp."
Black says if the race boiled down to Bush vs. Tsongas, the economic issue would be neutralized, and Bush would beat him on social issues.
Tsongas supports abortion rights and gay rights.
There may be signs that Tsongas isn't going to fade as easily as some Democrats are hoping. A New York Times/CBS poll published Saturday showed Tsongas gaining both in national recognition and popularity following New Hampshire.
Of those polled, 24 percent said they'd like to see Tsongas as the Democratic nominee, compared with 29 percent for Clinton.
Among conservative Southern Democrats, Tsongas is also beginning to attract some attention.
"A lot of members are holding fire with their endorsements and taking a second look at Tsongas," says an aide to a leading member of that faction.