The disarray so evident among Democrats in these first weeks of the Bush presidency is the result of their not knowing where they are or who they are. While George W. Bush advances his own agenda and pushes his outreach to the opposition, the Democrats are struggling to find their footing.
Over the past several days, the Democratic National Committee elected Terry McAuliffe as its new chairman, and the unofficial but influential Democratic Leadership Council -- the policy home of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman -- installed Sen. Evan Bayh as its new chairman.
Both of these young men -- McAuliffe, a record-setting fund-raiser in Washington, and Bayh, a champion vote-getter in normally Republican Indiana -- spoke with confidence about their party and its future. But all around them, you could see and hear Democrats crashing into other Democrats.
Their confusion is understandable. They don't even know whether they are winners or losers. Last November, Democrats made gains in the Senate, the House and the governorships, and their presidential candidate won a half-million popular-vote victory. On the other hand, for the first time since 1954, their Republican opponents control the White House, both houses of Congress and a majority of the governorships.
Democratic leadership is in disarray. My Washington Post colleague John Harris reported last week that Clinton and Gore had a "very, very blunt," hour-long, post-election exchange, blaming each other for the loss of the presidency. Harris' report confirmed the growing disenchantment between the top two Democrats.
During the campaign, White House sources leaked word that Clinton was champing at the bit to get out and rally the Democrats, while top Gore campaign officials told reporters that their polling showed Clinton would cost Gore more votes than he could attract. So they kept him on the sidelines.
Harris added the information that when they met, Gore told Clinton how much of a drag the president's scandals had been, and Clinton replied that the real scandal was Gore's failure to capitalize on the administration's economic success and solid record of achievements.
That argument has consumed the Democratic Party for the past six weeks, along with a parallel, finger-pointing discussion about the inability of the Democrats in four straight elections to establish themselves as the majority party in the House of Representatives.
Rival Democratic pollsters -- Stan Greenberg and Ruy Teixeira for the party's liberal constituencies; Mark Penn for the middle-road DLC types -- have fueled the fight, with conflicting analyses of Gore's defeat. Penn argues that Gore blew it by muddling the message of Democratic prosperity with a misguided populist promise to fight for "the people, not the powerful." Greenberg and Teixeira say that populism was powerful but could not overcome the corruption associated with Clinton, Penn's most important client.
This tiff has less to do with Gore than with the jockeying for control of the Democratic Party in the next four years. The trashing of Gore by his old allies in the DLC is unseemly. But the DLC, which gained intellectual ascendancy in the Democratic Party in the past decade and also scored notable political victories with the nominations of Clinton, Gore and Lieberman, is desperate not to have its influence over party policy reversed by Gore's defeat.
While the DLC has been winning adherents in the salons of Washington and among Democratic elected officials, the rising grass-roots Democratic power centers belong to what Teixeira calls the "1930s and 1960s coalitions" -- organized labor, minorities, teachers, environmentalists, women's groups and abortion-rights and gay-rights advocates.
Bayh thinks the schisms can be bridged, "because everyone realizes we have to maximize the turnout of our base and, at the same time, attract more independent, suburban voters." But that is easier said than done. Parts of the base claim that Gore was cheated out of victory and want to wage war on the Republicans. Others are more than willing to make Gore the fall guy. And still others, apparently including Gore himself, are pointing the finger at Clinton, who, goodness knows, continues to provide ammunition to his critics.
These are troubled times for the Democrats.
Washington Post Writers Group