Outpolled, outmaneuvered and out of power, Democrats are suffering an identity crisis.
They could dig in for the long haul as an opposition party similar to many European semi-permanent parliamentary models, and espouse popular positions without worrying about governance. Or they could try to reach across party lines in hopes of achieving accommodation with the Republicans for the public good.
There are pluses and minuses to each approach, and finding a happy medium will be difficult.
“Once they get out of the fetal position, which is what they’re in right now, the Democrats in Congress are really going to have start catching the pitches that are thrown by the president,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
“They can’t be obstructionist,” Baker said, but should capitalize on the fact that President Bush’s second-term proposals to overhaul the tax code and add private accounts to Social Security “are fairly radical things” that could be troublesome for Republican lawmakers seeking reelection in 2006.
After the 1992 elections, Republicans were pretty much in the same boat as Democrats are today. Democrat Bill Clinton had won the White House, and Democrats had extended their control of Congress.
Republicans took “about nine or 10 months to figure out what the job was as the opposition party. And then it took them a couple more years to figure out how to operate with that,” said Doug Sosnik, a former top political advisor to Clinton.
“There was a burden they faced, and we face, which is: It’s not enough to just say what you’re against, but you have to say what you’re for,” Sosnik said.
The Republicans’ “Contract with America,” which spelled out goals for reduced government and social activism, gave the GOP such a rallying platform. It helped them capture control of both houses of Congress in 1994.
But House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1995 decision to play veto roulette with Clinton over spending bills resulted in a temporary nationwide shutdown of government that worked against Republicans, costing them House seats in 1996 and fomenting a rebellion against Gingrich that led to his departure.
“The real question here is whether the Democrats can learn to behave like an opposition party,” said Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank based in Washington. “That means taking popular stands and not paying quite as much attention to the details, letting the majority party worry about the practicality.
“Thus far, the Democrats to date have not had the organization or the discipline to play that role,” Aaron said.
Democrats have a hard time letting go. Their long years of controlling Congress remain a fresh memory in the minds of many incumbents, giving them an institutional split personality reflected in Sen. Harry Reid’s remarks after being elected incoming Senate Minority leader.
“I would always rather dance than fight. But I know how to fight,” the Nevada Democrat said.
Part of the Democrats’ plight is that resolving the debate over the direction of the party may not happen until a nominee is selected for 2008 because he -- or she -- will steer the party’s course through the next presidential contest.
And with no dominant leader, the party now remains in the shadow of Clinton, rather than of its most recent nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Clinton’s continuing influence was underscored as recently as Nov. 18 at the dedication of his presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., where he drew lavish praise not only from predictable Democratic luminaries, but from the first President Bush, whom he defeated, and the current one, his successor.
The Democrats’ predicament looks even bleaker considering that Bush likely will get to fill two or more vacancies on the Supreme Court, giving Republicans effective majorities in all three branches of government.
Gleeful Republicans are seeking to pound Democrats into remaining the minority party for years to come. The president’s top strategist, Karl Rove, is already involved in organizing grass-roots support for the 2006 midterm elections in hopes of solidifying GOP gains in Congress.
For now, Democrats must “find the right balance between being challenging and being supportive,” said Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. While supporting Bush on the war on terrorism and other vital national security issues, “we need to push back” on other areas, he said.