Democrats these days are hollow-eyed but happy. The hours on Capitol Hill are long, the outcome uncertain; but after 12 years of thinking that God had forgotten them, they are reveling in a heaven-sent opportunity (via George Bush) to be themselves.
In their long exile, they have bickered about various guises; they have been exhorted to be more Republican, to pay attention to business, to defense, and to seeing that the poor don't take advantage. Now, Bush has handed them back their identity. By telling them who he is -- i.e., the friend of the very rich -- he has informed them they are the party of the poor and middle class. It has burst on them with the fire of revelation.
Since Oct. 5, when House Republicans rose up and smote Bush on the budget agreement that was his grudging acknowledgment of the deficit problem, the Democrats have been living in a different, better world.
Bush has no allies in his fight to protect the country club from the tax collector. Not even the millionaires are standing up for millionaires. They are calling around protesting that they don't mind coughing up a little more, having paid peanuts during the Reagan years. "Surtax us," they say, despite Bush's cry of "never" -- at least at this moment.
This is not our doing, they protest, as the embarrassing stalemate drags on and Richard Darman and John Sununu drag themselves through the marble halls trying to look nonchalant. Fond looks are beamed on them by Democratic officeholders. They have the pair to thank for the rise in their fortunes.
"The Sununu-Darman strategy has backfired," says Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who has been locked in a tight reelection contest with Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R). "They wanted to keep us here until practically Election Day, so Republicans could go out and pound on a do-nothing Democratic Congress.
"But now everyone can see that it is Bush who is holding up an agreement because he wants to stand up for the very rich. It is wonderful. Our troops are galvanized now, and the money is coming in. It's a new campaign."
In neighboring Nebraska, fellow Democratic Sen. J. James Exon, who was experiencing anti-incumbency turbulence, has been refreshed by another backfiring tactic. His rival, former House member Hal Daub, brought in as a character witness former senator John Tower of Texas, who was turned down for defense secretary because of his drinking habits. Tower characterized Exon as "one of the two or three biggest boozers in the Senate" -- a designation that Nebraskans apparently felt he was not qualified to make.
Exon's numbers have shot up dramatically, and he is about to undergo another boost at the hands of his opponent: Daub is now importing another has-been, Robert H. Bork.
"They never learn," chortles Exon.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), another potential victim of anti-incumbency blues, sees light at the end of the tunnel. Challenged by millionaire James Rappaport, he is, with increasing effectiveness, hammering on the theme of fairness in taxation. His rival has played into his hands by releasing only partial tax returns for one year. Rappaport, who bragged about pulling off a $27 million real estate deal in Hawaii, reported paying $5,000 in income tax last year.
Bush, after one of the longer honeymoons in American political history, suddenly finds that his party wants a trial separation. Maybe they can get together again after the election, but right now, they'd rather he send money than show up in person.
He was manhandled by two New England nobodies in a way that would have been unthinkable before Oct. 5, when his favorable rating was 75 percent. In Vermont, rookie Rep. Peter Smith told a meeting -- which the president had gotten out of bed on a rainy morning to attend -- how he disagreed with Bush on taxes, while the crowd cheered.
In New Hampshire, Rep. Robert C. Smith boycotted his own fund-raiser and sent his wife to tell the president that he had more important things to do in Washington. Not so long ago, John Sununu had threatened Republicans that the president would come into their districts and embarrass them.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart says that wherever he looks, "Democrats are going into the final days of the election with a distinct advantage."
Bush may be trying to govern by tantrum, the way he campaigned. Remember the hysterical assault on Dan Rather? By changing his mind almost daily on what he will accept in the budget, by braving slights and insults, he is demonstrating how much it is costing him to abandon his slogan on no new taxes. It is not dignified, it is not presidential, but Bush may figure he can recoup by 1992; he just has to hope that this year's losers will be good sports.