The age of Bill Clinton so far has not been easy for Democrats.
Since grasping the wheel of power four years ago, the president has steered the party on a wild ideological ride. He veered left after capturing the White House, then watched in dismay as his party lost Congress. He then veered right, winning reelection but angering liberals, who felt they were being tossed around in the party's back seat.
Now, as Mr. Clinton eagerly courts Republicans on balancing the budget, some state and national Democratic leaders are asking themselves a difficult question: Maybe the journey has been good for him, but where is Clinton taking us?
The president, running on career-high public approval, has momentum. But he is further to the right than many Democrats are comfortable with, and he may yet stumble over scandal or economic recession.
Much is at stake. Midterm congressional elections are never kind to the party that holds a second-term White House. With more Democrats retiring next year, Republicans stand to gain a filibuster-proof Senate.
Outside of Washington, key governors' races will determine which party gets to redraw the lines of congressional districts after the 2000 census.
"They're nervous about the direction the president is going," says William Schneider, a government analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But they're with him at the moment. He's got a winning program, and if they go to the left, they'll be isolated. But if Clinton's popularity slips, [they'll] stand up and say, 'We told you so.' "
By some counts, the party is not in bad shape. Democrats made modest gains last November, closing the gap between the parties in the House to its narrowest in four decades.
Moreover, a new region-by-region analysis of the election results by Congressional Quarterly shows that neither party controls the congressional map. Republicans control the South, the plains, and the mountain states; Democrats the East, Midwest, and Pacific West. In overall national voting for all races last November, the survey found, Republicans edged out Democrats by one-third of 1 percent, the smallest margin for either party since 1952.
But numbers aren't the only measure, and other indicators suggest the Democrats face a difficult task of rebuilding. Indeed, in cities like New York and Los Angeles, once Democratic bastions, the party has been unable to field competitive challengers to GOP mayoral incumbents riding high on low crime and strong economies.
Their plight may reflect a question about they stand for. In a reversal of party roles from the past four decades, Democrats now control the White House and Republicans the Congress. That, argues John Pitney, a political scientist at the Claremont McKenna College in California, shows Democrats have lost their strength at the grass roots. That base, he notes, is a reflection of identity.
"Democrats still need to figure out what they stand for," he says. "They were strong at the grass roots for a long time because they backed the politics of distribution. That doesn't work anymore."
A QUIET group of progressive scholars agrees. Clinton rebuilt a national constituency for himself by slowing GOP efforts to dismantle many provisions of the welfare state. That short-term strategy may work well for the president, but it may not help the rest of the party define itself.
"We're acting like a more timid Republican Party," says Theda Skocpol, a former Clinton administration official who now teaches social policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "At present, we're a quasi-independent party prepared only to offer symbolic gestures and softening cutbacks in government."
While Clinton works in tandem with the GOP majority, and while Democrats in Congress and at the state level tinker with party machinery such as candidate recruitment, Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues are producing a collection of essays, to be published later this spring, outlining a new progressive partnership between government and the common man.
For the Democratic Party to regain the agenda, Skocpol argues, it must overcome its reluctance to discuss the family.
"It is necessary to get beyond the politics of media advocacy," she says. "There needs to be a new vision that government can be used to shape the workings of the economy in partnership with working families."
Wage stagnation, the public's negative reaction to the GOP "revolution" of 1994, and Clinton's strength among women voters provide opportunity for this new progressivism, argues Stanley Greenberg, a former Clinton pollster who, with Skocpol, is editing the new book. The common man, he writes, feels alone against forces he can't control. "When two-parent families become more scarce and more fragile," he writes, "people are left more on their own, just as the pressures outside are growing. To restore the family is not just about flex time and child care ... it is also about parental authority and marriage."
The challenge in developing new political ideas, of course, is how to move them from academic discussion to party policy. Republicans found their bridge in House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, a champion of ideas as well as of the party.
But Democrats may have more trouble incorporating big new ideas into the rhythm of politics. Clinton has started the party down that road, Skocpol and other admit, with his Family Leave Act and education priorities. Still, it's not clear how far party leaders will follow.
If history is any indicator, the answer may be "not far." The last time there was divided government, minority Republicans on Capitol Hill spent time fighting with the Reagan administration. As Professor Pitney recalls, when Senate majority leader Trent Lott was still in the House back in 1985, he was largely responsible for derailing President Reagan's tax reforms.
"There's a lot of soul-searching," says Gary LaPaille, chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, president of the state party chairmen, and vice president of the Democratic National Committee. "Liberals have to redefine the issues they stand for. We have to fight for families and children."
* Tomorrow: Whither the GOP?