Resignations, bickering dim prospects for Democrats in '98

November 24, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- It doesn't take a political genius to figure out that the Democrats' hopes of winning the House of Representatives next year are being compromised by the retirement of incumbents.

The latest group includes Reps. Vic Fazio and Ron Dellums of California and Paul McHale of Pennsylvania. Mr. Dellums'

Oakland seat is considered safe for another Democrat. But Mr. Fazio's district in the Sacramento Valley will be competitive, and the Republicans will be nominal favorites in competing for Mr. McHale's seat in the Lehigh Valley.

Vulnerable seats

There are, of course, also some Republican seats that will be vulnerable next November because of the retirement of personally popular incumbents. So far 24 vacancies are certain, and the number is likely to rise to 40 or more before spring. But the Democrats clearly can least afford to give anything away.

In one sense, the notion that the Democrats might recapture the House next year seems fanciful. The usual pattern is for the party out of power in the White House to gain seats at the midpoint in a second presidential term.

But there are several factors in the equation that argue it might be possible for the Democrats to gain the 11 seats necessary for control. One is simply the fact that their minority is the largest in two generations.

Some political professionals in both parties believe, moreover, that the Democrats might have won control of the House last year if President Clinton had not gone into such a defensive posture over the last 10 days of the campaign because of the accusations of fund-raising abuses. Their view is that Mr. Clinton's caution depressed the core Democratic vote at just the point Republican nominee Bob Dole was energizing his party with his closing 96-hour, vote-seeking marathon.

Whatever the validity of that theory, there were a lot of seats decided by a whisker in that election. There are 26 Republicans and only 11 Democrats who were elected last year with less than 51 percent of the vote. These are obviously the most vulnerable of the incumbents, and half of those Republicans are in districts in the Northeast and West, where there has been a Democratic current running because of movement their way by independents and moderate Republican voters dismayed by Republican extremism on social issues.

These favorable numbers are being discounted now for a variety reasons.

The most obvious is that the Democratic candidates are likely to be significantly underfinanced in the 1998 campaign. They can expect little or nothing in direct assistance from beleaguered national party committees, and little or nothing in the way of generic party advertising. And, with the political climate today, many of them are going to find it far more difficult than usual to raise money.

Many of the liberal Democrats probably have been counting on life-giving infusions from organized labor, even if the AFL-CIO doesn't replicate the $35 million program it carried out in 1996. But all unions have been tainted to some degree, fairly or not, by the scandal in the Teamsters union election and the role played by other union people.

Union money

So, it is fair to say that major contributions from unions will be seen as a mixed blessing. At the least, they will invite a lot of scorn from Republicans who get their money from other sources. They are already playing that card.

In the long haul, however, the most serious problem for the Democrats may be the lack of a party agenda. They are divided on issues as basic as welfare reform and trade, united perhaps only in their willingness to heap abuse on Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich -- so long as his poll numbers remain in the pits.

Nor is there any apparent desire within the party to rally behind their president. Mr. Clinton has no program of popular plans for the future for which he can claim a Democratic majority in the House is essential. He can help a few candidates raise money, but it has been clear for years that the endorsements of lame-duck presidents have limited appeal.

The hard fact is that the House Democrats are dispirited as well as divided. They are finding life in the minority hard to take, and the level of harsh partisanship on both sides is extraordinary. So, it is not surprising to find a Ron Dellums or Vic Fazio willing to pack it in despite their high rank in the minority.

But the decisions to retire amount to self-fulfilling prophecies. The more of them who quit, the more unlikely the situation will improve.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/24/97

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