Democrats plot their comeback

Without control of the White House or Congress, they must find a balance between the 'new' and 'liberal' wings.

Not since the days when Americans liked Ike and loved Elvis have Democrats been so down and out in Washington.

For the first time in 45 years, the party will not control either the House, the Senate, or the Oval Office. It's a scenario that might be expected to cause a serious bout of collective soul-searching and rethinking of strategy for next time.

But so far, that's not the case. Party leaders say they are in good shape for congressional and gubernatorial elections in 2002, and have high hopes for the presidency in 2004. The party is better financed and organized than at any point in its history, and has a message that appeals to the majority of Americans - even if it's a slim majority.

"I don't think the Democrats need to go off on retreats, do navel gazing, and figure out what went wrong," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst here.

But other signs - especially internal tensions between moderates and liberals - indicate trouble may lie ahead for the party. Much depends on how successfully George W. Bush steers a middle course. Other potentially significant factors for the party are the economy and congressional redistricting, in which the Republicans are expected to pick up four or five seats.

But the main thing to watch in the months and years ahead, says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here, is the tension between "new" and "old" Democrats, or centrists and liberals.

President Clinton was able to hold together these factions through his political skill and the sheer force of his personality. But in the absence of Mr. Clinton's leadership, some say the tension between new and old Democrats could grow into a rift.

"Look at both labor and minorities," says Mr. Wittmann. "They achieved tremendous successes in this election in terms of turnout. They will be very reluctant to cut deals with Bush that are in the direction New Democrats want to go. You will see that tension over and over."

The Ashcroft test

The first real test could be the confirmation hearings for Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri for US attorney general. While Democrats on the Hill are promising fair hearings, African-Americans are pushing for the former Missouri senator's rejection. They cite Mr. Ashcroft's blocking of a black judge, Ronnie White, to the federal bench, as well as his overall grade of "F" from the NAACP.

Bush's choice for secretary of State and national security adviser were "excellent" appointments, says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation, but then "he comes back at the most critical level of civil rights appointments and he slaps the minority community in the face."

If Senate Democrats give Ashcroft too easy a pass, say analysts, that might further alienate the party's liberal wing.

A positive spin

For the time being, however, Democrats are putting a confident face on their party's prospects.

The chief reason there's no serious rethinking of the Democratic strategy or message is because Democrats believe they actually won on all fronts - losing the presidency on a mere technicality.

In the House, they picked up two seats, reducing their margin to a slim nine slots. In the Senate, they pulled even with Republicans. And Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes - winning more votes than Bill Clinton ever did. Meanwhile, for the first time in the party's history, the Democrats ended a presidential campaign financially in the black, to the tune of some $8 million.

Political analysts such as Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution say that it was not the Democratic message that failed to hand the election to Mr. Gore, but unique factors such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Mr. Gore's inability to frame the issues adeptly.

When asked whether the party was going through any major reevaluation, Terence McAuliffe, Democratic fundraiser extraordinaire, answered: "It's difficult for us this time, because we actually won it. Our evaluation is not why we lost, but how we won, and why we didn't get the prize."

Mr. McAuliffe, who is running for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says the first thing he will do is investigate voter disenfranchisement: "We will get to the bottom of how this could possibly happen in America." He believes what happened in Florida will become a "rallying cry" for voters, and says he will push for legislation and funding for a more accurate voting system.

But McAuliffe himself is running into some of the tensions within the party. African-American leaders, who say they delivered 11 states to Gore, don't like the way McAuliffe popped to the top without proper consultation with everyone in the party. They are fielding their own candidate for DNC chairman: former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California, who encouraged Mr. Jackson's challenge bid, is highly critical of the party.

"When our party emerges with a Terry McAuliffe and says, 'Terry McAuliffe has been decided on by Clinton, Gore, [House minority leader Richard] Gephardt, and [Senate minority leader Tom] Daschle,' and you're waiting to hear 'Who else?' they don't even think about or recognize [us]. We are not yet on the radar screen in terms of inclusiveness in this party."

Jackson has taken issue with McAuliffe's view that no major corrective work needs to be done within the party.

In the next presidential election, he argues, the DNC should not concentrate on just 17 states, while ignoring 33 others. And it should not run things from the top down, but from the grass roots up - a point on which McAuliffe agrees.

An overrated problem?

Yet many key Democrats believe the ideological tension problem is overrated.

Yes, the new Democrats have criticized Gore for being too populist in his message, and yes, labor has criticized him for just the opposite - being too centrist, says Joe Andrew, the current DNC chairman.

"The reality of it is that a winning message in the future probably combines both those things - populism and centrism," says Mr. Andrew. It's not contradictory, he explains, for Gore to have had a broad centrist position on taxes, but a targeted populist message against big pharmaceutical companies.

This is a view McAuliffe shares, and analysts like Mr. Mann say that the basic core of the New Democrat message is firmly in place.

"It's seen as a party that believes in paying down the debt and using government not in a profligate sense, but in a wise sense to give people a better shot at thriving in a new economy," says Mann. "The party fixing," he comments, "took place already."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.