Why Clinton's Biggest Headaches Are In His Own Party

ROSS K. BAKER

August 12, 1993|By ROSS K. BAKER

One of the commoner laments by political observers this past week was that President Clinton's highly public blandishments to congressional Democrats for support of his budget is one more sign of the twilight of party loyalty.

Old-time Democratic presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, it is said, merely summoned their party's congressional leaders to the White House, plied them with a little bourbon, fired them up with party solidarity and sent them back with orders to deliver majorities for some important administration bill.

Occasionally it happened that way. But it didn't happen often and only then under extraordinary circumstances: depressions, world crises and assassinations.

More typically, in recent history, we saw the spectacle of Democratic presidents openly pleading and wheedling like merchants in a Third World bazaar, not for the votes of recalcitrant Republicans but with House members and senators of their own party.

One reason the Democratic minister must not only preach to his own choir but beseech it as well is that members of Congress really don't need the president's help to win another term, nor have they needed that help for a good many years.

In fact, under certain circumstances, they find that their own president's malediction can be a useful campaign asset. Jimmy Carter's displeasure with some congressional Democrats gave them a real boost in the 1978 elections.

Being disowned by your own troops is not just a problem of Democratic presidents; last year, George Bush found himself as unwelcome as a man-eating shark in some Republican districts.

For Democratic presidents, there is an additional problem of long standing: the nature of the Democratic Party itself, referred to back in 1944 as ''a sprawling mixture of groups who have little sympathy for each other; and some of them hate each other more than they hate Republicans.''

With a few modifications, the Democrats' unity problems are essentially those they faced when the nation emerged from the Civil War.

The party then, in order to have any hope of winning the White House, became host to two nominally antagonistic elements: farmers and small-town people from the South who were overwhelmingly Protestant, and big-city voters who were preponderantly Catholic.

Here was a party that, after all, came near to being captured by the Ku Klux Klan in 1924 and nominated a Catholic for president in 1928. It is also the party that elected only two presidents in the 72 years between James Buchanan's departure in 1861 and Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933.

Powerful big-city bosses have been replaced by mayors with more uncertain clout who now represent racial, not religious, minorities. The Southern congressional delegations are no longer uniformly Democratic, but the fundamental structure of the party within the electorate -- as Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson would have viewed it -- is still the same.

Was Bill Clinton humbled by Georgia Democrat Sen. Sam Nunn, over gays in the military? Indeed he was, but so was the mighty FDR in 1937 by Texas Democrat Tom Connally, in Roosevelt's efforts to get agricultural reforms.

Harry Truman's efforts to get a civil rights bill through Congress were impeded by the filibusters not of Republicans but of Southerners of his own party. And it was Democratic House Rules Committee Chairman Howard Smith of Virginia, not some obstructionist Republican, who thwarted President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier.

And lest the impression be gained that only crusty Dixie reactionaries bedevil Democratic presidents, it should be recalled that President Carter's efforts to contain health-care costs were derailed by that soul of party moderation, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, now the House majority leader.

If anything, President Clinton has been spectacularly successful in keeping the bulk of congressional Democrats in the fold on most crucial votes.

Unfortunately for him, his most conspicuous and successful antagonists have also come from his party's Capitol Hill majority.

Always more diverse than the Republicans with their common denominator of economic conservatism, the Democrats are also greatly more faction-ridden.

Home to earnest policy nerds, pious visionaries, gimlet-eyed pols and even some flat-out crackpots, the Democrats still answer to the description that they were tagged with half a century ago: ''The gathering place for all of the irrelevant prejudices in America life.''

With friends like these, who needs Republicans?

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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