These are supposed to be the good times for congressional Democrats. Their man may have lost the White House, but with Congress split nearly even and midterm elections only two years away, majority status seems close enough to touch.
But as the 107th Congress takes its seats, the party's left wing, which lay relatively calm through eight years of moderate rule under President Clinton, is beginning to stir. With impeachment and Election 2000 on their minds, they're setting a more-strident tone.
The result may be a messier, more complicated job for Democrats, especially leaders in Congress. If the party decides to fight Republicans, it risks being tagged as obstructionist. But if it follows the public's desire for bipartisan cooperation - and decides to deal with Republicans - some in its own ranks may revolt.
"We have to be careful that the Democratic Party does not become an imitation of the Republican Party," says liberal stalwart Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California. "Some of us believe the lines increasingly are blurred."
Representative Waters's wing of the party scorns President-elect Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut, his private-school vouchers plan, and his overall approach that would privatize certain areas of government. The group would rather see smaller tax cuts and bigger government spending.
Perils of obstructionism
But Democratic leaders hoping to capture the House and Senate in 2002 are loath to be seen as obstructionist. They remember too well the 1994 Republican class and its uncompromising conservatism. When the federal government shut down, the public saw Newt Gingrich and company as the cause for gridlock - and punished them for it in the 1996 election.
"There is a limit to how far being an obstructionist can take you as a party," says Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, a member of the party's conservative "Blue Dog" wing. "Certainly no one has that as an agenda for a way to take the House back."
Mr. Stenholm says he sees many areas where House Democrats can work with Mr. Bush, including Social Security and education reform.
To many Democrats, how the minority party deals with Bush is more than a battle over who controls the leadership: It's about the party's future.
Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a group of moderate Democrats, worries that in the next few years the party could swerve away from the centrist course Mr. Clinton steered.
A DLC poll after the election found that Al Gore lost by not scoring as well as Clinton did with middle- and upper-middle-class voters. Clinton carried voters making between $50,000 and $75,000 a year by about 2 percent. Mr. Gore lost them by 5 percent.
The lesson, conservative and moderate Democrats say, is to stay away from liberal policies and, where there's agreement on issues, work with Bush. "If Bush is able to work from the center out," and toward moderates, "we should be able to work a lot with him," says Mr. From.
Yet some strategists argue that heading into negotiations with a liberal agenda means Democrats may be able to get more in the end. "The Democrats should go in liberal - with the [Rev. Jesse] Jackson wing and with some of Al Gore's programs," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University here.
The wide space between the two sides might leave fertile ground for compromise - especially because "politicians know the public ... is tired of the partisan bickering," he says. "There's incentive for them to say, 'Look, I'll compromise if you will.' "
Heard, but not heeded?
The first major test of whether compromise or conflict will prevail will come during confirmation hearings for Bush's Cabinet, especially that of former Sen. John Ashcroft for attorney general. Early indications are that the liberal voices will be heard - but not necessarily heeded.
"We will be sure to ask the
questions they want us to ask," says top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota. But Mr. Daschle and others know that while they can voice pointed questions, actually denying Bush his cabinet choices would poison the air - and likely anger the public.
In the end, all the current noise on Capitol Hill may just be so much posturing.
Expect the dealmaking to begin behind closed doors, says Professor Wayne. That way, he says, "they can work out the details secretly and then jointly announce them and both take credit for them." In fact, he says, "it's the quiet signs" - the early closed-door meetings - that will determine whether the two sides set the stage for compromise.
But he sees dangers in posturing. "Partisan politics seems to develop a certain momentum that's hard to break once you get into it," he says. "If public positions harden," and there isn't agreement to work together in private, "it can start to mushroom - and get out of control."
Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society