An awful lot of the hopes and fears -- and future political prospects -- of the Democratic Party have come to focus this week on Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), the 42-year-old black preacher-politician who is in his first year as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
A party whose national leadership seems to be in a permanent defensive crouch and whose elected officials lack any consistent direction, a party that has yielded the initiative on almost all issues to the Republicans, is being forced by circumstances to act responsibly -- and even boldly.
The House of Representatives is the only part of the national government the Democrats still control. If they fail to assemble a majority for a budget resolution matching the deficit reductions the Republican Senate approved last week, the failure will resound from coast to coast and around the world.
Bill Gray, though untested in any legislative or political situation of remotely this consequence, has the personal skills and temperament to meet the challenge. Whether his party does is another question.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), through their tough and gutsy bargaining, brought a nearly unanimous Republican majority and a reluctant President Reagan together to pass a budget that offers realistic hope of reversing the rising tide of deficits.
After offering responsible alternatives, Senate Democrats retreated into the negative posture their party increasingly adopts on all questions. Except for maverick Sen. Ed Zorinsky (D-Neb.), a one-time Republican, they said no to the Dole-Domenici package. In the crunch, they preferred to deal with the politics of the issue -- especially Social Security -- rather than the substance.
That is not atypical of Democrats in their post-Mondale trauma. Shocked by the massive repudiation of the mainstream candidate they nominated, they have thrown up their hands and said, "Let the Republicans do it."
Their few initiatives have come to naught. The emergency farm-credit bill Reagan vetoed was abandoned without even the formality of a veto-override vote in the House. The effort to stop funding for the MX missile failed when the newly elected Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee balked. The cutoff of aid to the contras in Nicaragua has proved to be an embarrassment to many of the House Democrats who voted for it, and they are looking for ways to retreat. The national party shows no more cohesion -- or sense of direction. Two separate Democratic "policy councils" start work this week, one chartered by National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., the other led by elected officials who opposed his elevation to that post. Kirk has announced his intention to scrap the party's midterm conference in 1986, frankly acknowledging that the messages Democrats send to the country when they meet are more likely to hurt their candidates than help them. He called it a "damage control operation."
More and more, Democrats are adopting the psychology of an opposition party, in which each elected official or candidate does what he or she thinks is necessary to survive -- without much concern about the impact on the party's reputation or future.
If there is one center of resistance to these centrifugal forces, one place where the Democrats still must weigh their collective responsibility, it is in the House. Since Democratic defections gave Reagan his way in 1981, the Democrats have managed sometimes to pass responsible budgets of their own in the House, but it has never been easy.
They cannot afford to fail this year. The stakes for the country, the economy and their political credibility are just too great. But once again, the issues on which they could fragment are obvious. Social Security, defense, agriculture and business subsidies all have their own adherents -- reflecting the welter of constituency and interest-group pressures and ideological views among the Democrats.
Although untested in this kind of combat, Gray is as good a man as the Democrats of the nation could hope to have in control. He is intellectually quick and politically deft. His Philadelphia district, predominantly black, includes samplings of other core Democratic constituencies: academic and Yuppie liberals, Jews and elderly holdovers from earlier ethnic groups.
Gray is a liberal and enough of a rebel that he once quit the Budget Committee, early in his seven-year-old House career, in frustration. But he is essentially a coalition-building insider, who gained crucial support for the budget chairmanship from his alliance with some of the House's southern and rural power brokers. He has good relations with mderate Republicans who may, in the end, furnish some votes, provided Gray has forged a substantial consensus in his own party.
He knows what he is doing. If he fails, it will tell us more about the state of the Democratic Party than it does about Bill Gray.