Now should be a moment of great opportunity for the Democrats. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., are soulmates in terms of their politics and personal style, and together, they should pose a formidable challenge to the Bush White House. But because House Democrats are so fractured, they are not reliable partners. In every debate so far, from tax cuts to the patients' bill of rights, House Democrats have been irrelevant. Outnumbered and out-muscled, their voices scarcely have been heard. "They shot us dead and they didn't tell anybody," California Democrat Ellen Tauscher says dryly.
Tauscher faults the majority for shutting down the Democratic opposition. Though the Republicans have only the slimmest majority, they have stifled dissent by limiting congressional hearings and floor debate, in effect leaving Democrats speechless. But Democrats also have themselves to blame for their ineffectiveness. "Democrats are screaming for new blood and unified leadership," says a Democratic Party operative. While Gephardt gets high marks for his dedication to the House, he has his eye on the 2004 presidential race.
If control of the House were within grasp, would he seriously contemplate another run for the presidency? And David Bonior, Gephardt's heir apparent, has set his sights on next year's Michigan governor's race. Tired of being Gephardt's perpetual heir apparent, Bonior's expected exit is a signal to Democrats that their hopes of regaining the majority anytime soon are probably futile.
Democrats are still in shock over their dismal showing in the 2000 congressional races. After setting fund-raising records and recruiting unusually high-caliber candidates, they took back only one seat. Explaining what went wrong to the party's big contributors and convincing them to bet again on the Democrats is proving difficult. Next year's election will be the fourth successive try to regain the majority, and optimism is in short supply. Tauscher likens it to "deal fatigue," a Wall Street term used when something you once loved no longer gets your juices going. Democrats had everything going for them in 2000, and they couldn't get over the finish line. "There's a sense that the opportunity has been lost not just for the moment, but for the near term as well," says the Democratic Party official.
Redistricting makes the task even harder. In addition to the very real loss of seats because of shifting populations, the continuing uncertainty over where the new lines will be drawn leaves incumbents in limbo and stalls the recruiting process for candidates.
The Democratic National Committee has traditionally focused more on the presidential race, but with Democrats trying to claw their way back into power wherever they can, the DNC is playing a greater role in congressional races. Party chairman Terry McAuliffe is a whirlwind of activity, but some Democrats are skeptical about whether his frenetic pace will accrue to the benefit of the party.
McAuliffe is raising a lot of money, which is his specialty, but he's also spending substantially to improve the DNC's operation and reach. The newly created Voting Rights Institute, headed by former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, is a case in point. Party veterans thought it was a peace bone thrown to Jackson, who challenged McAuliffe for the chairmanship, and to African-Americans, who are suspicious about the party's entreaties to Hispanics. But under McAuliffe's direction, the Voting Rights Institute has turned into a real and costly enterprise, giving skeptics heartburn. McAuliffe's enthusiasm rubs some the wrong way, but others see his energetic and sometimes abrasive style as just the kind of shock therapy that Democrats need to come back from the dead.
Political Correspondent Eleanor Clift contributed to this article.