ALOT OF talk about Tom Foley on his first anniversary as speaker has it that he has not been forceful enough in setting a Democratic course. The criticism is superbly ironic. To be more forceful the speaker would have had to squelch some of the very members of the party, often liberals, who, having held out until he would accommodate them on certain issues, now complain that he was too accommodative. Their real complaint, as so often in such matters, is that they haven't won more.
The good news for the Democrats would be if Mr. Foley and his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader George Mitchell, were their problem; that would be so easy for them to solve. It is not just that the party is divided on so many issues -- defense, foreign policy, taxes, welfare and the rest. There is a lack of intellectual or political certainty even within each wing of the party. The conservatives don't want to be labeled heartless; the liberals are paralyzed by the charge of tax-and-spend. Really not since early Lyndon Johnson have they had a national leader to rally behind. They now face a president highly popular in part precisely because he declines to take hard stands on basic issues that the country also wants to avoid. He would be an elusive target even if the Democrats did have an agreed agenda of their own.
Mr. Foley is not a hard-edged partisan; a year ago, as he was succeeding Jim Wright, that was regarded as one of his virtues. Where he has stood on principle over the past year -- the sort of thing his critics say there should be more of -- the party has just as often scampered away from him. As an alternative to the president's capital gains tax cut last year, Mr. Foley and the rest of the Democratic leadership in the House proposed an increase in the top income tax rate, the proceeds to be used partly for deficit reduction and partly to help finance increased aid to the poor. The Democrats then had an 81-vote majority in the House, but enough Democrats defected to let the president win. The leadership was also rolled when it tried to preserve catastrophic health insurance, progressively financed, and had to postpone a child care bill because feuding Democrats couldn't agree on -- no great question of principle this time -- which committee's program to use in delivering the funds.
True, Mr. Foley has failed to make progress on campaign finance with a party that flourishes under the present system of interest-group handouts. But the House did vote to renounce honoraria last year. In that and other respects Mr. Foley has helped to refresh it, and this may yet turn out to be a productive Congress. He is getting a bum rap.