Democrats not ready for prime time

October 03, 1995|By ROSS K. BAKER

A mournful and frustrated group of House Democrats recently staged a photo opportunity on the West Lawn of the Capitol to publicize their displeasure at the dismissive treatment they had received from the Republican leadership over proposed changes in the Medicare program. The event was designed to dramatize the GOP's efforts to muscle the changes through the House with only a single day of hearings. But sitting out there on the West Lawn under a glowering sky and a light drizzle, the congressmen came across in newspaper photographs looking less like a staunch group of defiant oppositionists than they did the participants at the Last Supper.

A political trio

The martyr's garb might seem ill-fitting on the well-tailored Richard A. Gephardt, but he has found himself leading the only group of Democrats that has mounted consistent public opposition to the ''Contract With America.'' What makes this solitary struggle even more poignant is that the other two sources of Democratic political strength -- the White House and Senate -- has each, on its own, decided on a course of accommodation with the triumphant GOP. Party unity, never a strong suit among Democrats, has eroded to the point where it can justly be said that there are three Democratic parties.

The institutional peculiarities of the White House and the two houses of Congress have always had a powerful effect on the way in which partisanship is played out. The House is a more partisan place because the constituencies of House members can be highly atypical of the country as a whole. New York's 11th congressional district, for example, has a population that is 75 percent black and is probably the most solidly Democratic district in the country. Other House districts are predominantly blue-collar or crowded with seniors, and these dominant characteristics give great intensity to the manner in which their representatives advocate the interests of those groups. On the Democratic side, these members represent the party's base. Theirs is undistilled, bottom-of-the-barrel liberalism, bottled in bond and served straight up.

Over on the Senate side, things are a good deal different. There are liberals over there, to be sure. Democratic senators such as Ted Kennedy, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois continue to invoke the ghosts of the party's liberal past, but even they represent constituencies far more diverse than most House Democrats. They are, moreover, not especially representative of Senate Democrats, most of whom are centrists either out of personal conviction or, more likely, because the interests in their states are more diverse and the party affiliations of the voters are more evenly balanced. Such diversity also impels Republican senators to be more centrist than their fellow-partisans in the House.

Then there is the president with the biggest and most heterogeneous constituency of all. For Bill Clinton, the party's base and the House members who represent it have been uneasy allies at best and an embarrassment at worst. They deserted him on the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and favored the single-payer arrangement during health care reform. He reciprocated the disloyalty by buying into the balanced-budget crusade -- albeit less radically than the Republicans -- and left the House Democrats sputtering in frustration when he entertained the GOP argument for Medicare cuts.

There is an axiom among military strategists that you should never divide your forces, yet the Democratic forces are divided along institutional lines as never before. To be sure, the Democrats have never been as disciplined as the Republicans and there has always been tension between the congressional and presidential wings of the party. But in the face of the greatest electoral reverse in 40 years, the party's scattered forces do not seem to be regrouping. Far from it, they find themselves cut off from each other using different strategies stemming from their varied sources of political support.

An embarrassed general

The leadership that might ordinarily be supplied by the White House is nowhere in evidence because the general seems to be embarrassed by some of his troops who are scrapping for a fight while he is suing for peace. Add to this odd coalition the Senate with so many of its Democrats disinclined to ideological combat and you have not a grand alliance poised to reverse its 1994 losses but rather some isolated pockets of resistance more suited to guerrilla warfare than to a major counteroffensive.

Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and the author of ''House and Senate'' (W.W. Norton).

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