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Rough Start for Mitchell in Senate's Roiling Waters

March 19, 1989|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — For George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), life at the pinnacle of Washington power was supposed to be a lot smoother. When Senate Democrats chose him as their new majority leader last fall, they were impressed by his skill in handling issues, his thoughtful demeanor and media savvy. This combination, they hoped, would communicate a more appealing public image than did his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), an often-dour insider.

Mitchell had a game plan for a more activist and appealing Senate. He wanted the Democrats, who have 55-45 control, to take the unprecedented step of issuing and passing their own agenda. He promised a more reasonable schedule so that Senators would have more predictable hours to spend with their families and their constituents. And he pledged to his friend and fellow part-time Maine resident George Bush that he would revive the spirit of bipartisanship that dissolved in recent years, especially on foreign policy.

But events slipped out of Mitchell's control. The Senate has been preoccupied during the past two months with a pair of the more poisonous issues in recent memory. Both the federal pay-raise flap and the debate over the nomination of John Tower as defense secretary exacerbated the anti-Washington sentiment that often rests close to the surface of American politics.

Mitchell's role in the Tower debate was revealing. As is routine for legislative leaders, he initially deferred to the committee involved with the issue--Armed Services, headed by Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). When the battle reached the Senate floor, Mitchell quickly weighed in with a sober-minded statement opposing Tower, after having made what he termed a "careful study" of the record.

His was a "personal" judgment, he said, and other Senate Democrats quickly echoed Mitchell's message that partisanship was the last thing they had in mind. The move was characteristic Mitchell; he was a federal prosecutor and judge before appointment to the Senate in 1980 to fill the seat vacated by Edmund S. Muskie, who resigned to become secretary of state. Mitchell's low-key style, which has led some to criticize him for undue caution, reflects a modest Maine upbringing. After his appointment to the Senate, observers at home and in Washington initially dismissed the prospect that this lawyerly son of nonpolitical, working-class parents had the requisite partisan skills.

But he confounded the initial expectations of many Senate insiders when he built a base of support last November among liberals and younger colleagues to defeat handily two Democrats with more seniority--Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii and J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana--in the contest to succeed Byrd. His actions since then suggest that he will be an assertive and effective leader. "He's going to be trouble for us," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "He's very tough and smooth, yet he is committed ideologically."

The endgame on the Tower nomination the week of March 6 showed Mitchell's artful touch. Regardless of whether Mitchell planned the detailed scenario, the one-a-day announcement of support for Tower by three Democratic senators added suspense to the final vote and left the impression that Democrats were not marching in lock step behind their leaders. At the same time, Mitchell's confident statements that Tower would be rejected and his continuing participation on the Senate floor allowed him to keep control of the debate. Nunn, in effect, crafted the argument against Tower; Mitchell made the sale.

As a member of the Iran-Contra committee in 1987, Mitchell first became known to the public for his understated partisanship. Following the testimony by former White House aide Oliver L. North, Mitchell responded that others share deep devotion to country and North should "recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the Contras and still love God and still love this country as much as you do." That masterful performance was one of the Democrats' few effective responses to North's TV appeal.

A year earlier, Mitchell displayed partisan skill in another context when he spearheaded the Democrats' effort to reclaim the Senate after six years of GOP control. Defying predictions that it would be tough to unseat "Reagan robots" first elected in 1980, he helped recruit a highly capable corps of challengers and imbued them with a can-do attitude while carefully dishing out relatively meager party funds. Years earlier, he had been a top aide in Muskie's White House campaigns.

Since joining the Senate, Mitchell has become an expert on such issues as health care and environment. While embracing basic Democratic values, he has tried to update them and make the party message more appealing to middle-class voters disenchanted with the big-government approach. That explains his current efforts to craft a more contemporary party agenda on behalf of Senate Democrats.

As Senate leader, Mitchell has stressed the importance of "the politics of inclusion." Along similar lines, he has publicly stated a desire for more cooperation between Congress and the White House. Whether that bipartisanship is badly frayed following the Tower furor is too early to tell. But Mitchell cautions reporters to take each issue at a time; don't always make them a test of either Bush's or his own leadership.

Now that he appears to be on a winning streak following the Tower debate, Mitchell may feel more comfortable. But don't expect him to overplay his hand. Seeming cautiousness has been a key to his success.

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