Wanted: a party leader

March 05, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic governors who joined their Republican counterparts here the other day for the annual winter meeting of their fraternity accentuated the positive in the wake of their party's loss of the White House.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening pointed to eight Democratic victories in 11 gubernatorial races for a net pickup of one, in West Virginia. He boasted of "a number of really articulate spokespeople across the country," including "a number of governors" (unidentified by him) who can carry the Democratic message to voters.

That message, as expressed by the Maryland governor and other Democrats at the meeting, is that their party wants a tax cut but not nearly of the dimensions President Bush is seeking. They say Mr. Bush's proposal would deny the money needed for responsible debt reduction and programs like adequate prescription drug benefits.

That's all well and good, but any party freshly out of power knows that it sacrifices clarity and clout with the public if it speaks in too many voices rather than through one identifiable leader. That's the problem that faces the Democratic Party now, for two reasons.

The first is that its 2000 standard-bearer, Al Gore, is in no realistic position to pick up that leadership because he is being blamed by many in the party for losing an election he should have won.

The second is that the most articulate Democratic voice, that of former President Bill Clinton, is being drowned out by the uproar over his 11th-hour pardons that are a colossal embarrassment to the party.

West Virginia's Gov. Robert Wise, only 40 days into his job, says what few other Democratic governors are likely to say -- that the role of spokesman now should fall to the national chairman of the party. Inconveniently, however, that post has just been seized by Terry McAuliffe, Mr. Clinton's master fund-raiser, whose handiwork for the 1996 re-election of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore continues to plague both men for their own excessive involvement.

Mr. Wise says nevertheless that Mr. McAuliffe has "got the bully pulpit" and it's up to him to use it to speak for the party until other leadership eventually emerges.

But other Democratic governors say privately that Mr. McAuliffe in the chairmanship at precisely this time compounds the need for a leadership voice that has no Clinton taint attached to it. Yet the two Democrats often mentioned, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, do not, not yet at least, have the stature of easily recognizable national leadership.

There are also very slim pickings among the 19 Democratic governors in terms of a national voice. Perhaps the closest governor to having national recognition is Gray Davis of California, himself in office only two years and currently under fire, deservedly or not, for his state's horrible energy crisis. The only other Democratic governor who has made much of a splash is Howard Dean of Vermont, now in his tenth year. But Montpelier is hardly a likely launching pad for national leadership.

Another freshman, Gov. Bob Holden of Missouri, suggests that, just as in the past, when John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all emerged after Republican takeovers of the White House, the current period can identify new leadership. Just as the new president got a strong push from fellow Republican governors in 1999 and 2000, Mr. Holden says, his group of Democratic governors has the potential of producing a new leader as well.

Until then, though, the Democratic governors must content themselves with the knowledge that every party out of power requires a stretch of time for its new leadership to develop and emerge.

Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, contending the party is in "pretty great shape" with House, Senate and gubernatorial gains in 2000, emphasizes public support for its approach to using the federal surplus as it goes into legislative battle with Mr. Bush and the Republicans.

As for any damage to the party from the latest Clinton scandals, Mr. Vilsack says the pardon fiasco is "a personal problem (for Mr. Clinton) that doesn't reflect on" other Democrats or the party. Regarding the beleaguered Mr. Clinton, Mr. Vilsack says only that "we thank the president for his service, but it's time to move on."

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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