A fine flowering of a great political culture finds embodiment in the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives. So a twinge of sadness attends the defeat inflicted on the speaker and his lieutenants in recent votes on taxes and the budget.
For ominous circumstances, as well as the Reagan magic and the new budget procedures, explain the humiliation of the Democrats. The country may need, and fairly soon, its special flair for government.
The Democrats became the governing party in the country thanks to solid reasons of culture and history. The descendants of the immigrant working classes, led by the Irish, that began flooding this country around 1850, still constitute the base of the party. Originally they needed help in securing citizenship, and in defense against harsh forces and gouging landlords. The Democratic Party was their passport to influence within the state.
Long before the immigrants, though, the party had agrarian roots in the South and West. It has been a national party all along. Democrats have at all times had to reconcile conflicting regional and economic interests. In order to rise, Democrats had to do, within the party, the essential work of governing the country.
Thus the speaker, Tip O'Neill of Boston, is not merely a huge bear of a man with shoulders so broad anybody can lean upon them. He is not only a big-city Irish pol. He is also, as the first big-city pol to oppose the Vietnam war, especially well-placed to bind together the generations.
Jim Wright, the majority leader, is not only a booster from Ft. Worth who pushes government financing for highways and construction. He is also, as a foe of the big banks and the huge oil companies, well equipped to make common cause with other Democrats in battling high interest rates and monopoly concentration.
Tom Foley of Spokane is not just a liberal Democrat with the westerner's concern for minorities and a humane foreign policy. He also represents a farming district and initiates other Democrats into the mysteries of price supports, irrigated agriculture and the right to bear arms.
The conservative tide that swept the country last year featured sentiments hostile to government spending that were anathema to the Democratic leadership. "I'm the last of the big spenders," the speaker once acknowledged. Still, the speaker's instinct was to avoid confrontation with the president. Thus, in the February recess, he went blithely away to the South Seas. ywhen it came to fighting, his idea was to wage small, symbolic battles first. Hence the stand on Social Security. Hence, too, the extraordinary session with a breakfast group of hard-boiled reporters where the speaker recalled with passionate eloquence fights he had waged long ago for help to dwarfs and persons with knock-knees.
But the younger members of the Democratic majority in the House had no patience with that approach. They wanted, as a governing party, a place to stand, a full-blown party position. They goaded the speaker into defining policies in a way that set up direct challenges on budget cuts and taxes.
My strong impression, after talking at the time and subsequently to the two figures most responsible for administration tactics -- James Baker of the White House staff and Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan -- is that they would have settled for a two-year tax cut in place of the three-year reduction originally advocated by the president. The speaker and House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski were prepared to cut that deal. But younger and more liberal members of the committee preferred to fight for a one-year cut. So they fought -- and lost everything. p
The three-year cut that has prevailed may, as the president believes, be just what the doctor ordered. But you don't have to be a hysterical pessimist to have doubts. The new bill cuts $150 billion out of the annual tax take by 1984. The savings in projected spending achieved so far by the administration amount to less than $35 billion annually between now and 1984. The only big items available for further cuts are almost sacrosanct -- Social Security and defense. So the future may hold big federal deficits, high interest rates, an economic slowdown and maybe even a sharp recession with disorders in the big cities. If so, the country will have need of its Tip O'Neills. But the sad tradition in this profligate land is that when the team loses, the coach goes.