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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

A Gore Loss May Aid Democrats in Congress in the Long Run

November 29, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — While thick clouds drift across Al Gore's presidential prospects, his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill can see a silver lining if he loses.

Even as they root Gore on in his quest for the White House, these Democrats believe that they will be in a better position to win control of Congress in 2002 if Republican George W. Bush takes the presidential oath on Jan. 20.

History would be on the Democratic side in this scenario: Almost without fail over the last century, the president's party has lost seats in Congress in midterm elections. Additionally, Democrats figure that they could make significant gains in 2002, given the fractious political conditions under which Bush would operate.

For these same reasons, a Gore administration might undercut Democratic hopes of taking back Congress.

"If Gore wins, it's a pyrrhic victory for the party," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego. "In the short run they are better off, but in the long run they are worse off."

So far, no signs have surfaced that such calculations are diminishing the commitment among congressional Democrats to Gore's cause. The party's two top leaders on Capitol Hill--Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.)--are prominent volunteers in Gore's army of allies. They traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., on Monday to offer a well-orchestrated show of support for Gore's decision to legally contest election results showing that Bush won Florida. They have consulted with the Gore campaign almost daily. And they have labored to keep their own troops behind Gore's effort.

But if the controversy drags on too long, the divergence of political interests within the Democratic Party could take a toll, analysts said.

"I think you have a lot of schizophrenics across the political landscape," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant.

The tumult over the presidential election largely has overshadowed the extraordinary results of this fall's congressional elections, in which Democrats came within a hairsbreadth of winning control of the House and Senate. The Senate could end up in a 50-50 split between the parties, and Democrats narrowed the Republicans' majority in the House to 221-212, with two independents.

That puts Democrats within spitting distance of a majority in 2002. In the Senate, the political landscape appears favorable because 20 Republicans will be up for reelection then, while Democrats will be defending only 13 seats. In the House, Democrats still face new obstacles in 2002 because there may be a rash of retirements and congressional district lines will be redrawn--in many states by legislatures run by Republicans.

But Democrats are confident that they will have a leg up in 2002 with a Bush presidency, if the past is any guide. In every midterm election since the Civil War except two--in 1934 and 1998--the president's party has lost seats in the House. That is partly because the midterm is often seen as a referendum on the administration. Also, there are usually more vulnerable House members of the president's party, and they are likely to have a harder time winning reelection without the lift of a victorious presidential candidate at the top of the ticket.

Democrats speculate that Republicans would be especially vulnerable in 2002 if Bush prevails in the contested presidential vote. The animosity generated by the election imbroglio and the narrow GOP margins in the House and Senate likely would make it hard for his administration and Congress to get much accomplished in the next two years. And if the booming economy begins to go sour, as some analysts are predicting, Bush probably would bear some of the blame.

In that environment, Democratic gains in 2002 could give them something Republicans now do not enjoy--a sizable congressional majority with more maneuvering room than the razor-thin margins of control Republicans have had.

A Bush presidency also could give Daschle and Gephardt more prominent roles than they would have under Gore: They would become the premier Democrats in a closely divided capital, rather than handmaidens to a potentially beleaguered Democratic president.

Aides to the two leaders said that Daschle and Gephardt still would prefer a Gore victory over more personal prominence and a greater shot at controlling Congress two years from now.

"We know, having lived through eight years of a Democratic presidency, it's certainly to your advantage to have a Democrat in the White House," said Laura Nichols, a spokeswoman for Gephardt.

But another source close to both leaders acknowledged: "It's a no-lose situation from their point of view. They'd either have a Democratic president or a Democratic Congress [in two years]. There's the silver lining."

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