The meeting of Democratic state chairmen was not half an hour old when Sylvia Hagen of North Dakota put the perplexity of the party in stark terms no one could ignore. There had been polite discussion about the plans for the mid-term party conference the Democrats will hold sometime next year. They Hagen, a Bismarck political activist and state party vice-chairman, cut through the fog.
"I hope," she said, "we are not going to spend the next three days [of state chairmen's and national committee meetings] talking about the mid-term conference. The real issues are that we have got a very popular Republican president and a Democratic congressional leadership that looks stumbling and divided . . . . I don't know about your states, but in our state things can get a lot worse in 1982 . . . if we don't do something about it."
North Dakota went for Ronald Reagan, of course, and Republicans recaptured the governorship in 1980. But it was also the only state where a Democrat took over a vacant Republican House seat. In 1982, freshman Rep. Byron Dorgan and veteran Sen. Quentin Burdick, both Democrats, will face reelection challenges, so Hagen was talking about a very real threat.
She was also talking about a problem a great many Democrats see, when she complained that the impression the country is getting is of a "stumbling and divided" congressional leadership.
As she spoke, Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee were hammering out what they hoped would be a consensus alternative to the Reagan tax bill, and another group of Democrats was at the White House listening to Reagan pitch his plan. That night, both sets of Democrats were on television, expressing their divergent views. Two days earlier, there was a similar TV spectacle when the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate met with Reagan and then aired their disagreements with each other for the cameras.
Except for the issue of Social Security cutbacks, where the Democrats saw Reagan's mistake and pounced, almost every issue that has come up so far has found the opposition party's most visible spokesmen -- its congressional leaders -- sending a signal of confusion to their fellow partisans around the country.
It is not a new problem -- the lack of an opposition-party spokesman. Indeed, it occurs almost every time the White House changes hands. But there are special factors that make it particularly acute for the Democrats in 1981.
Their "titular leader," Jimmy Carter, is licking his wounds and writing his memoirs, and there is no great demand for him to go public as the spokesman for the party he led to defeat. Their two most prominent survivors of 1980, Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy, are too deeply and obviously committed to their personal ambitions for 1984 to serve as spokesmen for anybody but themselves.
So that leaves the job to Sen. Bob Byrd and Speaker Tip O'Neill and their lieutenants -- and that is where the problem lies. Byrd and O'Neill, it is worth remembering, have no previous experience in this role. They came to the leadership of the party in the Senate and House at the same time Carter came to the presidency. This is the first time the absence of a Democratic president has shifted the spotlight to them.
As is obvious, both men have more pressing problems that keep them from focusing much thought on how they are performing that public-spokesmen function. Byrd is struggleing to adjust to being the Senate minority leader. O'Neill is working just as hard to find a way to knit together a coalition of House Democrats, no longer dominated by people of his own liberation tradition.
To Ask these two men to devise and execute a national political and public relations strategy that will counter that of the White House and the showman-president is to ask the impossible.
But Hagen was not alone among the grass-roots Democratic leaders in demanding just that. "We need something out of the Democratic leadership in Congress," said Nancy Pelosi, the head of the party in Reagan's home state of California. She reported that demands for "stronger" congressional opposition to the Reagan program dominated a recent survey of 55,000 California Democratic workers and contributors.
"The Democrats look weak -- and that's putting, it mildly," said Ed Campbell, the veteran Iowa Democratic chairman. "People want to know what the Democratic Party stands for. We've got to stand for something."
The official answer of party chairman Charles T. Manatt to the rumbles of dissatisfaction is that sometime later this summer, he will set up the party "strategy council" he promised at the time of his election last February -- a body that will supposedly include Byrd and O'Neill and their lieutenants. But the scuttlebutt around the Democratic meetings here was that, while O'Neill is being cooperative, Byrd is dragging his feet on Senate participation in the council, apparently out of fear that it would further complicate his leadership problems.
But it is clear that something will have to be done by the Democrats -- and soon. Too many of them are looking to their spokesmen in Washington and hearing nothing.