Their majority lost, their leadership discredited, the Democrats stand at a strategic crossroads.
The GOP's Senate takeover was a painful rebuke to Democrats, who had been hoping to extend their one-seat edge. Yet with Republicans likely to end up with only a narrow margin in the upper chamber, passage of pet GOPlegislation won't be a shoe-in. Republican legislative momentum will hinge partly on the Democrats' game plan.
Dems could opt to play ball with Republicans, downplaying partydifferences to appeal to a public that, after all, gave the GOP agenda a strong endorsement. That's already expected to be the case for a handful of senators from conservative states, who face election bids in 2004. But on the other hand, forlorn Democrats could bond closer together in opposition, hunkering down to play legislative block-and-tackle.
In the humiliating aftermath of Nov. 5, it's looking like the latter course is more likely.
Whither the Dems Now?
"A lot of Democrats are saying
the party didn't give
the voters an alternative, didn't define the agenda well," says Larry Sabato, an election analyst and government professor at the University of Virginia. That could prompt leaders to draw starker contrasts with Republicans. "The party could as easily move to the left as to the middle," he says.
Certainly, the strategies of current party leaders came up short. "If a vote were held today, the current leadership would have a hard time hanging on," says Lehman Brothers political strategist Kim Wallace. The Democrats won't actually elect leaders until January, giving the current party bosses time to make their case. But when the vote is held, Wallace predictsmembers will want leadership with a message "that will differentiate them from Republicans, and do so in a way that has a hope of garnering at least 51% support."
Another factor likely to sway Democrats' behavior in the minority will be its treatment by the Bush administration, he adds. "If the White House has a very heavy hand in its approach with the Senate, that will make Democrats more obstinate," predicts Wallace.
Alternatively, if the White House homes in on a few favored issues and negotiates with Democrats, it should have an easier time winning support on both sides of the aisle.
The sting of defeat notwithstanding, analysts agree, Senate Democrats could wring some political good out of their time in the minority. It's been done before: In 1993, when Robert Dole was Senate minority leader, he wielded his position to block presidential initiatives like an economic stimulus package.
Sen. Tom Daschle has the potential to play the same role as Bob Dole in '93 with Clinton," notes David Lublin, a professor of government at American University. It may be tougher in practice today, though, because President Bush is highly popular -- unlike Clinton at the time.
Another pet minority tactic: Though Democrats have no voice in setting the legislative agenda, the party may invoke filibusters to shut downparticularly nettlesome GOP proposals. The Republican win fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
The ability of the minority to use filibusters undermines the power of Senate majority leaders, notes Bill Frenzel, a governance scholar at The Brookings Institution. "It's awfully hard to move a program past afilibustering minority," he says.
Still, an opposition party cannot squander too much political capitalon filibusters. "That creates an image of obstructionism that can be used against that party in the next election," says Sabato. In light of that reality, he adds, "My guess is that Bush gets probably another third of his programs through that he wouldn't have gotten otherwise."
One caveat: Though Democrats are bound to issue their share of pot shots at Republican leaders, they must voice their criticism "without looking like they're being contentious and querulous. That's a very hard thing to do," said Frenzel.
During the elections, he added, Democrats came to be "perceived as whiners on the economy."