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Good Grief, the Democrats Overdo It

March 04, 2001|ROSS K. BAKER | Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey

Unlike perplexed individuals who pour out their grief behind closed doors in therapists' offices or in the privacy of church confessionals, afflicted political parties air their angst in a most public manner in the media. In the period immediately after the presidential election was decided, but with even greater frequency and intensity in the few weeks since the Clinton pardons uproar began, the hand-wringing by Democrats has come to resemble the kind of public lamentations that are usually associated with the deaths of Middle Eastern despots.

The greater part of the New York Times op-ed page last Sunday was devoted to treatment plans for the party offered by a dozen ex-officeholders, Washington courtiers and hangers-on. Partly a protracted reaction to the defeat of Al Gore and partly a gnashing of teeth over the apparent loss of Bill Clinton as a party spokesman, this outpouring of keening and grieving and inspirational sermons turns out to have little foundation in reality. The Democratic Party, far from being a candidate for embalming, just needs to have its cheeks pinched a little to restore a healthy glow.

Historically, both major political parties have suffered electoral reverses of far greater severity than the one that befell the Democrats last November, and the half-life of presidential malfeasance is vanishingly brief.

Consider the Republican Party after the presidential election of 1936 that saw Franklin D. Roosevelt humiliate Alf Landon. When the 75th Congress convened, the number of GOP senators was reduced to only 17 in a body of 96 and the party had a paltry 89 members in the House out of 435. Yet in less than a year, the Republicans in coalition with conservative Democrats were able to thwart Roosevelt's effort to enlarge the Supreme Court.

Garment-rending was more in order for the Democrats after the 1980 election that not only deprived Jimmy Carter of a second term, but also delivered the Senate to the Republicans for the first time in 26 years. In the House, the 50-seat Democratic advantage was largely offset by the presence of a large number of "Boll Weevil" Democrats who often sided with the Reagan administration. In 1982, the country slid into recession with the first double-digit unemployment since before World War II, and the Democrats won back 26 of the 33 seats they had lost in the 1980 Reagan landslide.

What is notable about these apparently devastating setbacks is how brief they are and how quickly the humbled manage to get back on their feet. The mass slaughter of Democrats in the 1994 election was followed by a Clinton triumph in the 1996 election and the remarkable success of Senate Democrats in coming abreast of Republicans with 50 seats in the current 107th Congress--the largest number of Democrats in the upper chamber in six years. The current 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate positions the Democrats for a takeover in the event of a Republican vacancy.

There has also been a good deal of grumbling on the House side about the failure of the Democrats to win back control of the body despite an astonishingly successful fund-raising campaign by Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island, the party's House campaign chairman for the 2000 election. But despite the Democrats' failure to pick up many open seats, they held their own and are still poised to win back the House in 2002.

A certain amount of sober stock-taking is not out of place, of course. It would be far better for the Democrats if they had the presidency and its primacy in setting the national agenda, but getting too conspicuously overwrought in this, the sunshine period of George W. Bush's young presidency, makes the party appear cranky and unattractive. The brighter reality is found in a seasoned and effective leadership of the party's congressional wing.

Despite claims that Clinton's pardons debacle obscured the party's message on tax cuts, the fact is that the show staged by Democratic leaders Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota on the Capitol grounds, which featured a luxury Lexus car that rich Americans might buy with their tax-cut windfall and a muffler for a used car that would be the limit of extravagance for the middle-class under the Bush plan, was widely covered in the media. And canny senior Democrats in the Senate are proving adept at negotiating with Republicans for a division of spoils in the evenly divided upper house. With an eye to once again becoming the majority in that body, the ranking Democratic senators on most committees have worked quietly but astutely to avoid a scorched-earth approach with their GOP counterparts, thus paving the way for a smoother resumption of majority control.

Democratic grief therapists need to be reminded that the distinction between disappointment and disaster is not a subtle one. Democrats who too enthusiastically and too publicly call attention to their party's shortcomings should not be surprised when people start believing them and looking elsewhere for inspiration.

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