Can Insiders Be Outsiders?

Imagine that you're Senator Tom Daschle. You have two somewhat conflicting goals. One is to block the worst parts of the Bush program, this year. The other is to move down the hall to the big office, the one that says Majority Leader instead of Minority Leader, probably in November 2002.

You could get lucky, so to speak. Either of the doddering ultras from the Carolinas, Thurmond or Helms, could tip partisan control of the 50–50 Senate by passing on to their respective rewards before the midterm elections (maybe to some integrated private hell where they will be eternal servants to black, lesbian millionaire performance artists). But I digress.

Tom Daschle can't exactly count on the demise of Thurmond or Helms, and it is unseemly to wish for it. Strom Thurmond is not entirely compos mentis, but at 98 the fellow does push-ups. And if sheer meanness keeps a man alive, Jesse Helms could outlast half the Senate.

So if Daschle does become majority leader, he will probably have to do it the hard way, by getting 51 Democrats elected to the Senate. To accomplish this, he needs first to save four shaky incumbents up for re-election in 2002 and then capture a couple of Republican seats for insurance. The at-risk incumbents include Max Baucus of Montana, which in the 2000 election went for Bush over Gore, 58 percent to 33 percent; Max Cleland of Georgia (Bush, 55–43); Tim Johnson of South Dakota (Bush, 60–38); and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana (Bush, 53–45).

Here's the rub. These senators, not surprisingly, tend not to demonize George W. Bush. Campaigning around his state, Max Cleland has kind words for the "compromise" $1.35-trillion general tax cut. Likewise Baucus and Landrieu.

So the Daschle who wants the Democratic Senate delegation to throw itself in front of W.'s speeding train runs smack into the Daschle who wants to salvage the shaky four seats. On the one hand, Bush's program is not galvanizing the country. Most voters, especially the kind that sometimes get excited about Democrats, would much rather have better health coverage and schools than bigger tax cuts for millionaires. They are fed up with deregulated airline, cable, and phone service. Why not, then, have a vibrant, progressive party? But on the other hand, people like Baucus and Cleland practically beg Daschle not to make them walk liberal planks.

And it gets worse. As this column has previously observed, the Senate Democrats are most effective when they can manage a high degree of caucus unity. Unity is pretty easy to achieve among the 35 or 40 Democrats who are good liberals. But keeping the last 10 or 15 wavering Dems on board requires the whole caucus to tilt to starboard. That's why we get abominations like a $1.35-trillion tax cut that gets spun as some kind of victory rather than the disaster that it is.

If you think Daschle has problems, consider his opposite number in the House, Dick Gephardt. The Democrats have to pick up just six Republican seats for Gephardt to move down the hall to the Speaker's suite, where he gets lots more staff, the power to set the agenda, and the chance to be constitutionally second in line to be president, just behind a not-terribly-robust Dick Cheney. You can just imagine how badly Gephardt wants to pick up those seats.

But even though the out-party typically picks up at least 15 House seats in the first midterm election after a new president takes over, this time the trick will be harder. Redistricting will cost Democrats 10 to 20 seats, because reliably Democratic areas are losing population while the Sun Belt is gaining. And more Republicans control statehouses (which in turn control redistricting) than Democrats do. Also, Bush may well get his recession out of the way early; and Republicans will be better funded than Democrats.

And like Daschle in the Senate, Gephardt has to pick up districts that are swing seats. So while the Democratic Party needs passion and energy to rally a latent progressive majority that currently doesn't even vote, the 25 contestable seats that will decide whether Gephardt is Speaker invite caution and moderation.

In other words, the short-term political interest of the Democratic leadership is somewhat at odds with the long-term project of rebuilding a vibrant party. This is not because Daschle and Gephardt are bad guys. They're good progressives. But they are caught on the horns of an institutional dilemma: Taking back control of Congress is a one-seat-at-a-time endeavor that doesn't seem to lend itself to a popular crusade. And in the bizarre absence of both Clinton (sheepish from Pardongate and away on the lecture circuit) and Gore (depressed and eerily silent), Daschle and Gephardt are what we have for party leaders. How do you simultaneously make barn-burner speeches and save Max Baucus?

Yet a popular crusade is exactly what Newt Gingrich and the Republicans managed in 1994, when they damned the torpedoes and built energy on a tide of ideological zeal. They made clear just what they stood for, generated excitement, ignored the moderates in their own ranks, dissed the president--and took back Congress. How about a Democratic Compact with American Families?

But Daschle and Gephardt, though philosophically progressive, are institutionally and temperamentally cautious. So the renewed progressive energy, if it comes, will come not from national leaders but from genuinely energizing movements of citizens: living-wage campaigns, multiracial alliances demanding real democracy, grass-roots initiatives for children and families, creative protests against the dark side of globalism, and labor-immigrant coalitions like the one that could elect Antonio Villaraigosa mayor of Los Angeles on June 5.

In short, the people will have to revive the party, not vice versa. Nothing wrong with that.

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