WASHINGTON -- "It seemed as though there were two Democratic parties there," said a grizzled, 30-year veteran of his party's wars after attending the recent "retreat" of House Democrats at the Library of Congress. This was not the historic ideological split between liberals and conservatives, but a division between House members who enjoy absolutely safe districts and those who don't.
So carefully have the two parties crafted congressional districts to minimize contested elections that no more than 45 of the 211 incumbent Democrats need remotely fear a Republican challenger. At the retreat, these potentially endangered lawmakers appealed for caution when it comes to raising taxes.
The safe Democrats, in contrast, reacted favorably to a briefing by campaign consultant Bob Shrum calling on them to emphasize the alternative of government spending programs to President Bush's tax cuts. Correctly or not, Shrum was interpreted as supporting Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's call for a rollback of President Bush's tax cuts.
This is today's dilemma for Democrats. In 1964, "The Democrat's Dilemma" by Philip M. Crane (then a history professor, now a 17-term Republican congressman from Illinois) depicted Jeffersonian Democrats as conflicted over whether to stay in a party dominated by the left. They departed long ago, leaving the party ideologically homogenous in dedication to big government. Unsafe House members were making the pragmatic argument at the Library of Congress that the party is doomed if it follows its heart.
That helps explain the Jan. 24 speech by House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt. He took the Bush tax cuts off the table as a debating issue in order to give the party a chance for recapturing the House this year -- outraging many colleagues from safe Democratic districts.
Allies of more than 20 years standing complained that they now realize what critics meant when they accused Gephardt of abandoning principle for politics. Particularly incensed was the House's Progressive Caucus headed by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (the onetime populist boy mayor of Cleveland who last year won his congressional district with 75 percent of the vote). Progressive Caucus members wanted a meeting with Gephardt, but it had not been scheduled at this writing.
Gephardt's friends in the House, however, sighed in relief. They were alarmed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's speech partially blaming tax cuts for the recession and appalled when Ted Kennedy called for some of those reductions to be rolled back -- an effective tax increase.
Indeed, one of Gephardt's closest associates feared he would enter into a three-way suicide pact with Daschle and Kennedy, and was gratified that he did not. It was at this point that a contemplated Daschle speech to the House Democratic caucus somehow never happened.
Almost all of this tension goes on beneath the surface with few Democrats willing to speak publicly, but there are exceptions. Rep. Bob Filner, who won his San Diego district with a 68 percent vote in 2000 and 99 percent in 1998, wants his colleagues to speak out on the issues. "What are they afraid of?" he asks, noting that 98.6 percent of House members are re-elected. Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, facing a tough fight for a third term this year, on the campaign trail recently said: "I think Democrats are without a politics if they're not bold and honest for the things they think are right."
The dilemma is that the Democrats who believe Gephardt is taking the proper path see Filner and Wellstone, upright in their ideological purity, leading the party into permanent minority status. The party of big government is not in a politically favorable position.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Democratic strategists thought that the heroic performance by police and firefighters would restore enthusiasm for big government. On the contrary, the Jan. 24-27 ABC News-Washington Post national poll of 1,507 adults shows 54 percent of adults prefer "a smaller government with fewer services" while 41 percent like "a larger government with many services."
That leaves Enron, which explains efforts by Democrats to attach the scandalous ruin of the bankrupt company to the Bush administration and Republicans. They hope that issue will hide their own problems, which go deeper than George W. Bush's popularity.