Out of the dust of defeat, there emerges the outline of a new Democratic opposition. Its center is the bully pulpit of modern American politics -- the Senate.
Three wings -- one on the left headed by Edward Kennedy, one in the middle headed by Henry Jackson, and one on the right headed by Ernest Hollings -- are discernible. Jockeying for position among these groups will probably dominate Democratic politics for the forseeable future.
Several conditions assert the preeminence of the Senate as the headquarters of the Democratic opposition. First, there is the character of the two leading Democratic governors. Hugh Carey of New York and Jerry Brown on California both work in the hot glare of the national media. But both have also made for themselves the reputation of being erratic --even flaky. Each would probably jump at a chance to go to the Senate.
Second, Congress is the one place where Democrats can offer systematic and coherent alternatives to the foreign and domestic polities the Republicans will now lay before the country. Theoretically, of course, a national leader could spring from the House of Representatives. But the membership is so numerous that distinction comes hard -- especially since the Democrats hold a majority in the House, will be obliged to maintain a semblance of discipline.
The Senate, by contrast, offers a natural forum for a free-for-all. Discipline ranges from minimal to non-existent.
The present Majority Leader, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, is a nuts-and-bolts man, long on rules and procedures as distinct from the enunciation of broad political positions. He did not work hard either for the national ticket or for other senators during the recent campaign. If he is designated as Minority Leader (which is by no means certain), it will be mainly because his dullness makes it easy for so many other Democratic senators to outshine him.
Several already command national attention. They expound well-marked positions with strong followings among different groups in the party, and in various regions of the country.
Kennedy is the best known by far. He stands for a full-fledged liberal legislative program heading up in national health insurance. He is the darling of many constituencies within the party -- especially lobbies pressing for equal rights and a better quality of life. He is the dominant figure in the Northeast and has pocket support all across the country. He clearly wants to be the Democratic nominee in '84.
Jackson of Washington counts organized labor as his chief base. Like Kennedy, he favors most of the liberal domestic programs. Unlike Kennedy, he also wants a defense buildup and a tough stance against the Soviet Union. While not a great public figure himself, he can count on dazzling intellectual support from Pat Moynihan of New York. Another highly personable senator with presidential ambitions also tends to identify with the Jackson position -- Gary Hart of Colorado.
Hollings of South Carolina stands at the front of a distinct southern group that also includes Sam Nunn of Georgia and Lawton Chiles of Florida. The southerners all share Jackson's commitment to a big military buildup. But they oppose most of the liberal social legislation favored by the labor unions.
In fighting among these claimants to the Democratic leadership is apt to be long and bitter. Philosophic differences run deep. They are intensified by regional conflicts, and further animated by personal rivalries. Occasions for doing battle are legion. And it is hard to imagine even any semi-political gathering of Democrats that will not in some way reflect the struggle inside the party.
No doubt it would be better for the country if the fighting could be settled with a minimum of blood on the floor. That way, the Democrats would be in a better position to provide constructive opposition in the next few years and to field a serious candidate in 1984. It is not beyond the range of possibility that a unifying figure will come forth -- John Glenn of Ohio for example, or Dale Bumpers of Arkansas or Lloyd Bentson of Texas. Maybe President Carter and Vice President Mondale can hold the disparate groups of the party together. But as of now, anyway, the outlook is much less for a rallying round than for a spell of guerrilla warfare.