Why so pale and wan?

November 22, 1994|By Russell Baker

THIS IS A plea to Democrats. Many are planning to leave the country. Others are threatening to open veins. A few talk of forming survival groups and fleeing to the woods. Most, however, simply sit around weeping.

To these Democrats I say, pull yourselves together. The recent Republican victory is not the worst blow to civilization since Attila the Hun popularized sacking and pillage. Not at all.

The unterrifying fact is that Republicans are no more inhuman than my Uncle Jack, of whom Aunt Pat used to say, "Jack's not tough, he just needs a shave."

I have known Republicans from my cradle and and have never been bitten, or even sued, by a single one. Republicans are just like human beings, except for their demented conviction that repealing the capital-gains tax can save the world.

My Uncle Irvey was a Republican. He was a Southerner, but when Democrats ran the Catholic Al Smith for president in 1928, Uncle Irvey did not terrify neighborhood Protestants with warnings that a victorious Al Smith would move the pope into the White House. The local Protestant Democrats did it for him.

Republicans are decent. One lent me the rent money once without asking collateral. A Republican is godmother to one of my children and has never sought to corrupt the child's faith by preaching salvation through repealing the capital-gains tax.

Republicans, in short, are not much different from people, so it is silly for Democrats to be terrified.

Think, Democrats, think. Your party has really been just a rudderless variation on the Republican party since Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon 25 years ago. After that the decline of the labor unions left it bereft of ideas, and its only presidents have been those two old-fashioned Rockefeller Republicans: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

For evidence of the Democratic vacuum, how about that Rube Goldberg health-care bill the president offered? Republicans used to be called "me-tooers" because they couldn't think of much to do except go along with Democratic ideas.

Democrats are the new "me-tooers," which is probably why "me-tooers" are now called "new Democrats." President Clinton is a specimen "new Democrat"; that is, a Democrat who thought former President Eisenhower had it just about right.

You can tell "new Democrats" by their conviction that "liberalism" is their deadliest enemy and their lack of any ideas not likely to be approved by the better class of Republicans.

With Democrats now residing in the abandoned tents of the old Eisenhower Republicanism, why this Democratic panic about Republicans running Congress?

Well, it's the triumph of the Republican mossbacks of course: Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms, all those Dixiecrats who used to be Democrats until Republicans became the white man's party. It's the same crowd that couldn't abide Nelson Rockefeller and would have chucked Eisenhower if he hadn't had such a way with the voters.

With everybody talking about Mr. Gingrich's "first 100 days," you might think he is the new Franklin Roosevelt risen out of Georgia to rebuild a stricken nation.

The unreality is intensified by Mr. Gingrich's announcement that he will not compromise in dealing with that lesser fellow who calls himself president. This is harmless nonsense, except that people who should know better take it seriously.

Mr. Gingrich, whose skill at mischief-making is considerable but whose talents for governance have not been tested, is doubtless blustering to cover the natural insecurity of a youngish gent in charge of a crew that hasn't sailed a ship for 40 years.

Democrats should allow the possibility that he is playing bad Captain Bligh just now, largely because he is shocked and maybe a bit scared to find himself in command.

What else explains his "no-compromise" declaration? It's institutionally impossible for Congress to lead. House members who desire the slightest accomplishment absolutely must compromise, and not just with presidents, but also with Senates.

I should like to assure the Democrats that they have nothing to fear but fear-of-Newt itself, but that would mislead them. A party that doesn't stand for much has plenty to fear from one that stands for plenty, even when, as now, it looks like plenty of nothing.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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