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While GOP Just Watches, Democrats Eat Their Own : Politics: Are the Republicans really Clinton's worst enemy? Not while the Democrats are around. The fiercest fight is intraparty.

February 07, 1993|John Ellis | John Ellis is a consultant at Harvard University's Institute of Politics

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — It seems like a natural political entente. Bill Clinton needs congressional Democrats to be successful. The Democratic Party has an enormous stake in a successful Clinton presidency. If ev erybody gets with the program, every body wins. Indeed, Clinton made this a centerpiece of his campaign, promising the "end of gridlock" in Washington.

But between the idea and the reality falls the Democratic Party. Consider Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's (D-N.Y.) first conversation with the Clinton team. It did not take place over the phone, or even via fax. It happened in the pages of Time. Moynihan let it be known that his phone worked but that, inexplicably, no one from the Administration knew his number. "Not since November," groused Moynihan, "not a single phone call. . . . I would have thought someone would have gotten in touch by now. I just don't get it."

Reach out and touch someone. With the elevation of Sen. Lloyd Bensten to Treasury secretary, Moynihan ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. Virtually every piece of major Administration legislation dealing with the economy must pass through Moynihan's committee. Later in the same article, a "top Administration official" answered Moynihan: "Big deal, Moynihan supported Bob Kerrey during the primaries. He's not one of us, and he can't control finance like Bentsen did. . . . We'll roll right over him if we have to."

Well, maybe not. Just in case, Bentsen was dispatched to disown the remarks. But this offered a glimpse into a featured attraction in the Age of the End of Gridlock: Democrats eating their own.

Behind the scenes, Democratic cannibalism has been the rage since the election-night celebration in Little Rock. United 'til then, Democrats had devoted all their atavistic energies toward savaging George Bush. The election returns held the promise of a Democratic renaissance. All seemed well.

But within days, everything changed. And, in a way, it was understandable. Democrats had been out in the cold for so long that jobs in the Administration caused otherwise sensible people to resort to desperate behaviors. Defeat after defeat had only whetted their appetite for a shot at the big time. When they finally won, they could probably be excused for body-slamming each other in the rush to get a good seat at the table.

When Democrats start feeding on themselves, no one in the party is safe. Look what happened when Robert B. Reich, Clinton's friend since Oxford, made it known that he wished to be Commerce secretary. His request was vetted by the transition team of high-priced lawyers headed up by Warren Christopher and Vernon Jordan. Reich at commerce was troublesome. The Business Roundtable didn't want some weird, bearded academic cutting deals at Commerce; they wanted someone who understood business. Ronald H. Brown would be fine, they said. Clinton offered Reich another job--labor secretary. Brown got Commerce.

One would think that Brown, who had taken over the Democratic Party in the depths of its despond following the Dukakis disaster, would have been greeted with praise from Democrats of all stripes. He had, after all, raised an enormous amount of money for the party, run a nearly flawless convention and presented candidate Clinton with an impressive organizational and political apparatus in the fall campaign. But Brown was savaged as a morally degenerate lobbyist who had sold out for a stash of Japanese yen and a pile of Baby Doc's cash.

It would have been a routine case of sour grapes had Republicans been slandering Brown's reputation. But Republicans weren't touching Brown; they were too busy praising his selection. Indeed, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) served as a character witness at his confirmation hearings. The people ("informed sources" in journalese) savaging Brown were Democrats, mostly liberal Democrats of the good-government kind.

This depressing spectacle played to a small crowd, however. Only the political community was paying attention and most of this was behind closed doors.

But the intraparty slice-and-dice went public, on network television no less, during a Transition press conference. Clinton, frustrated by the inability of his fellow Democrats to rise above provincial concerns, lashed out at one group, the "bean-counters" in the women's movement, that was pressuring him to appoint more women to his Cabinet. The reaction of these "bean-counters" was instructive: They said they'd keep the heat on Clinton. He nominated Zoe Baird for attorney general.

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