Gephardt rallies Democrats against 'extremism' Missourian gives pep talk after House colleagues re-elect him leader

November 19, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Determined to boost morale among his disappointed Democratic troops, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt yesterday gamely called their failure to regain the House in this month's elections a "win" because they at least advanced toward their goal.

Gephardt, who was chosen yesterday to lead the House Democrats for another two years, assured his colleagues that they could reclaim House control in 1998 if they continued to stand together against what he called Republican "extremism."

"I think the American people said very clearly they rejected the extremism of the Republicans," Gephardt told reporters after the newly elected Democrats met privately. "That's why we won seats in the House."

The Republican majority in the House shrank from 236 to 228; the Democratic minority expanded to 206 from 198. One independent, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who usually votes with the Democrats, was also re-elected.

Polls taken before the elections had suggested that the Democrats might fare better, and party leaders had predicted that they would reclaim the House, which Democrats had held for 40 years before the 1994 GOP victory.

The elections last month were a setback to Democratic lawmakers who had hoped to regain committee chairmanships and other levers of power to solidify their position before the 1998 contest, which falls in the middle of President Clinton's second term. According to a historical pattern, the president's party -- in this case, the Democrats -- loses seats in Congress in such midterm elections.

But Gephardt, who had appeared certain that the elections would make him House speaker, gave a fiery pep talk to his troops. He rejected defeatist talk and insisted that it was the Republicans who should worry.

"We won eight seats," Gephardt said. "We came half the way toward our goal. There was a real message the American people sent to the Republicans.

"If they had liked their message over the past two years, they would have returned more Republicans. We would have a larger Republican majority. We now have the closest minority in 40 years."

The Democrats can parlay those numbers into a controlling faction, Gephardt told his colleagues, if they vote as a unit and divide the Republicans.

"He came out swinging, more so than I've ever seen him before," Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County, said of Gephardt. "It was a sense that we're more unified. The traditional notion of Democrats being split into liberals and conservatives -- that's all behind us. Now, we're a unified opposition."

Seeking to calm anxieties about the 1998 elections, Gephardt brought along a copy of a recent article that quoted analysts offering a dim view of the Democrats' chances to oust the Republicans from the House and Senate.

"To hell with history," was the message, Wynn reported. "They're vulnerable, and this is a new era."

Many who emerged from the meeting remarked upon the positive tone, in sharp contrast to a similar meeting two years ago, when Democrats could hardly bring themselves to acknowledge that they had been ejected from power in an institution they had controlled for so long.

The upbeat talk does not necessarily translate into a cooperative mood with the Republicans. Gephardt insisted that Democrats already have the middle ground on the key issues -- such as how to balance the budget and whose taxes to cut -- and that Republicans ought to abandon the "right wing of their party."

"If they are willing to come to the middle and work toward a consensus, we'll achieve it," he said. "If they aren't, we will continue to stand and fight for what we believe in."

House Republican leaders have made similar statements, promising cooperation but not capitulation. The Democratic leader said he was skeptical. "I'm from Missouri," he said. "Show me."

Leaders of both parties learned from the elections that success lies in being seen at the common-sense center of the political debate.

"I think the reason we lost out in '94 and are not yet back in '96 is we stopped talking to average people," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat. "The Democratic Party was the party of the average person; they would say: 'That party's on my side.' We drifted away from that in the '80s and early '90s.

"Now, I think the advantage for us is that the Republicans have not made people think they're on their side," he added. "So, the election was just a status quo election. But I think it's truly up for grabs."

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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