Cautious, Hard-Line Approaches Debated at Retreat : House Democrats Split on 1988 Strategy

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Times Staff Writer

After elections that gave their party both houses of Congress and with the Iran- contra affair plunging the White House into its worst crisis, House Democrats this weekend made their annual retreat here believing that things are finally going their party’s way.

But even as they rejoiced Saturday over their recent gains, they were differing about how to build what they have won into a national wave that can carry a Democrat into the White House in 1988.

“There’s generally an agreement that we have a wonderful opportunity now. The country is up for grabs,” said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), a member of the House Democratic leadership who is expected to announce next month his presidential candidacy.


But disagreements inevitably arise, he said, when it comes to the specifics of how to capitalize on that opportunity.

‘Not Out of Woodshed’

Political consultant Paul Maslin warned the almost 150 Democrats who gathered here that “we’re not out of the woodshed . . . . We are still in a very tenuous situation.”

House Democrats appeared divided into two camps: those who think the party should concentrate on cautiously developing forward-thinking themes and those who advocate aggressively drawing battle lines between the Democrats’ traditional values and President Reagan’s philosophy.

The key to success, both sides agree, is winning back the loyalties of the middle class--the same voters who were convinced by President Reagan that the Democratic Party was weak on defense and favored the poor at the expense of working taxpayers.

The Democrats’ best hope, Maslin said, lies in developing a fresh, new “national message.”

Greg Schneiders, another consultant, added: “We need to be talking about the future and leaving Reagan to the past.”

Coelho Confrontational

But Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), the third-ranking Democrat in the House, insisted that this is the time for old-fashioned confrontational politics.


People, he said, “are not interested in all this stuff about new ideas . . . . All we have to do is stand up for what we believe in, show that we can govern and we win.”

Coelho predicted that the Administration’s decision to sell arms to Tehran will be a major focus of campaign debate next year.

“That’s a legitimate issue in 1988, and we’re going to use it again and again and again,” he said. “The issue is why are we in there giving spare parts to the people who killed 250 Marines in Lebanon?”

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) agreed with Coelho’s aggressive approach.

“The difference between playing offense and defense in a football game is that you don’t get any scores on the board just playing defense,” Wright said. “You don’t play defense when you have the ball.”

Cites Water Bill Discord

An early indication of the Democrats’ strategy, Coelho said, has come with the clean water legislation that was passed overwhelmingly by both houses several weeks ago and was then vetoed by Reagan on Friday. Even the President has acknowledged that his veto is certain to be overridden.

“We should not shy away from anything we stand for. Now is the time to show the difference between Democrats and Republicans,” Coelho said. “We’re going to give the President lots of opportunities to veto things.”


Such a strategy is possible now that Democrats control the Senate. When Republicans held a majority there, the Senate was a burial ground for many Democratic initiatives that passed the House.

Some strategists cautioned, however, that congressional Democrats should take the time to pick their shots before taking on a still-popular President. Where the clean water bill had wide support in both parties on Capitol Hill, there is far less unity in other areas.

“We should be careful about handing them an issue” that could be turned against Democrats, said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey). “It is a time for caution, rather than the slam dunk.”

Warns on Tax Issue

It would be dangerous, for example, he said, for Democrats to lead the way on tax increases, which Reagan has used as an issue against them in the past.

Similarly, Gephardt said, many Democrats are leery of getting out front on defense and arms control issues, because of the party’s old image problems in that area.

“We want to propose what we want on arms control, but we back off because we look weak on defense,” he said.


Gephardt said he hopes to frame the issue as an economic one, arguing that unbridled defense spending can sap the resources that might otherwise be spent helping the nation to regain its competitive edge.

“We’re really looking at where to go in an intelligent fashion,” said Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae). “We’re being very cautious, and I think that’s good.”