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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2005

Weary Democrats struggle to find a voice and a role

THE Democrats are in a terrible mess. They nominated a Catholic for president only to lose the Catholic vote. They spent four decades as the legislative party only to remain shut out of power in the Congress. They have morphed into the progressive party only to find themselves uncomfortable in that role.

Now they are struggling to find a voice and a role. The Republicans have controlled the White House for 24 of the last 36 years. The Republicans are running the Congress with the kind of iron hand that the Democrats used for four decades in the House. Scratch a veteran Democrat and you will find a lawmaker who is weary and frustrated of being in the minority, and weary and frustrated with being weary and frustrated.

In recent days the Democrats have been struggling to find an opening, and they have lunged at the opportunities the Republicans have provided. The Democrats are reprising their role as guardians of Social Security, and the strategy may in the end have its rewards. They are also emerging as the poster children for the filibuster.

So much so that the campaign to save the filibuster - the new millennium's version of the campaign to save the whales - has become a prominent part of the party's road show. Just recently the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and a respected Democratic lawmaker, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, were in Pittsburgh to display their wares and to display their woes.

They complain that the Republicans are arrogant with their power. They complain that the Republicans want to take away the tool of the filibuster. They complain that the Republicans are no respecters of seniority. They complain that it's all unfair.

It is unfair. This is the result of a cycle of unfairness for which there is plenty of blame to go around. Democrats were unfair when they ruled the Congress, making Republicans feel like irrelevant appendages of the legislative system, rendering their amendments meaningless, giving them little chance to affect the course of legislation, especially in the House.

That spawned a ferocious backlash. A group of insurgents aligned with Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican, was radicalized. It developed a contempt for the totems of Capitol Hill and an aggressive determination to overturn all power centers, even those within their own party.

The reaction of Mr. Gingrich and his allies may have been extreme and may have been bad manners, but it was an entirely rational reaction to an intolerable situation. And it helps explain the Democrats' frustration today. The level of party rancor is so much higher today than it was a generation ago, when a Democratic speaker, Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., of Massachusetts, and a Republican minority leader, Rep. Robert Michel of Illinois, could fight by morning and play golf by afternoon. No joint tee times today.

Here is Harry Reid's analysis: "If there were ever an arrogance of power, an abuse of power, take a look at Washington, D.C., today."

My bet is that some deft practitioner of the computer archives can find an almost identical critique that was delivered by Mr. Gingrich about the Democrats in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Maybe even word for word.

That's the explanation. The implications are very complex.

This history means that the Republicans are merely saying it's their turn to turn the screws on their opponents. It means that the Democrats are now the victims of a strong opposition majority. But it also means that when the Democrats return to power (and, hopeless as that may seem now, the Dems eventually will have their day), they will be just as punitive.

Somewhere this has to stop. Apparently it will not be 2005.

Meanwhile, the situation has thrust Democrats into the position of defending the filibuster system in the Senate and the seniority system in the House - both the scourge of progressives, both the symbols that (in the days when only Democrats mattered) conservative Democrats used to frustrate progressive Democrats.

The Democrats' faint hopes in Washington today depend on a system, the filibuster, that hardly ever has been used for progressive causes. It was used to defeat the League of Nations and to hold back history during the civil-rights struggle. In those episodes and many more, the progressive (liberal is the label that dare not speak its name today) bloc was frustrated by the very tool the progressives today want to use themselves.

The Democrats are not isolated on this issue. Last week's Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that the public, by a margin approaching 2-to-1, opposes Senate rule changes to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm President Bush's judicial nominees. (An aside: Might the results be different if the word "filibuster" were actually in the question posed to voters in the survey?)

Now there's nothing immoral about the Democrats' flirtation with the filibuster, only something ironic. It is true that the filibuster is one of the tools available in the Senate, but someday, when the conservative tide ebbs, the progressives are going to be back there in power, and when they argue that the filibuster is a blunt instrument of obstructionism, they are going to have little credibility. And their opponents are going to have the filibuster.



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