MIAMI, NOV. 17 -- Democratic leaders gathered here today almost in amazement that after a decade of Republican domination of the White House, and after the GOP spent about $1 billion during the past 10 years to try to wrest control of Congress and state governments, Democrats, from state legislatures to the U.S. Senate, are in better shape today than they were in 1980.
"This poor, broken down, bleeding party is saying something to somebody," Paul Tully, political director of the Democratic National Committee, told the Democratic state party chairmen meeting here yesterday and today.
Nevertheless, despite solid Democratic gains, the single most important office in American politics, the presidency, has eluded the party for three straight elections. And in sharp contrast to post-election sessions of the Association of State Democratic Chairs in 1982 and 1986, not only were there no prospective presidential candidates holding court in hotel suites, there were no political operatives working the hallways and bars.
"I've never seen it so quiet," said R. Spencer Oliver, a former staff member who helped found the organization nearly a generation ago. "It's almost eerie." Another key Democrat said he felt as if he were on a football team that just finished training camp and "we all looked good and strong, but suddenly we looked around and no one was trying out for quarterback."
"This is the first meeting to start the 1992 election process," declared James Ruvolo, head of the association. "There is plenty of time for Democrats to come forward to run for president."
Ruvolo, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, sought to put the best light on the absence of presidential contenders, arguing that because there were none, the men and women running this year's campaigns could work without distraction.
But this meeting was marked by uncertainty over the stability of current Democratic unity, which for now stands in sharp contrast to the bickering and infighting plaguing the Republicans. The Democrats also were uncertain whether to declare victory in their struggle to prevent the Reagan revolution of 1980 from turning into a full-scale Republican realignment.
Ruvolo, whose Ohio party did not share in the general Democratic success on Nov. 6, pointed out that Democrats experienced "a tremendous victory" when they took back the Senate in 1986, but "it didn't turn out to mean too much in 1988," when George Bush routed Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis.
As Democrats sought to evaluate their gains and losses in 1990 and to explore their prospects for 1992, they found the evidence mixed. On the favorable side of the ledger, they found the following:
The 1990 election produced major setbacks to the Republican program to persuade southern Democratic officials to switch parties. Here in Florida, Democrat-turned-Republican Bob Martinez, the governor, and Rep. Bill Grant (R), a former Democrat whose reelection was a GOP top priority, both were defeated. Former Democratic representative Kent Hance was defeated in the Texas GOP gubernatorial primary. Two key Arkansas switchers, former representative Tommy Robinson and Sheffield Nelson, both lost in their bids to become governor. Tully brought smiles to the faces of the Democratic chairmen here when he recited the names of these Republican switchers-turned-losers, declaring "Ob-liv-i-on!" after each name.
Ten years ago, the GOP controlled the Senate by a seven-seat margin, while today the Democrats control by a 10-seat margin. Democrats today hold two more governorships than a decade ago, Tully said, and Republicans hold four fewer -- because two governors are registered independents. The Democratic House majority has grown from 243 seats in 1981 to 267 in the upcoming Congress.
Bush's changing stands on taxes, including abandonment of his "no new taxes" pledge, have created for the first time in 10 years serious ideological fissures within the Republican Party. Those intra-party splits are translating into some bitter personal conflicts -- for example, between White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and GOP congressional committee co-chairman Edward J. Rollins. There also has been sniping by Office of Management and Budget Director Richard G. Darman at conservative White House domestic policy assistant James P. Pinkerton.
Bush has been subjected to harsh partisan criticism of a kind Democrats were reluctant to indulge in during the Reagan presidency. "After two years in office, voters have realized that George Bush does not stand for anything. He is a political onion. Layer after layer of rhetoric, PR and media coaching surrounding absolutely nothing," DNC Chairman Ronald H. Brown declared here today. "As Gertrude Stein said: 'There's no there there.' "
While these developments gave rise to considerable Democratic optimism, party members also saw some clouds beyond the lack of a declared Democratic aspirant to the presidential nomination.
Pollster Celinda Lake told the Democratic state chairmen Friday that their party continues to carry significant liabilities in its efforts to regain national -- and presidential -- credibility. Voters in focus groups that she and members of her firm have conducted in various communities say that a "problem with the Democrats is that they don't understand that taxes are real money. . . . They think it's Monopoly money."
Despite their new-found populism, she said, Democrats still have to convince middle-class voters that Democratic goals are not just to "tax the rich to give it to the people on welfare."
In addition, the party has its own fissures -- ideological and regional -- over the next presidential nominee.
For example, the attitudes toward New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, considered by many likely to enter the presidential sweepstakes, vary widely.
Larry Yatch, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said that among voters in his state, Cuomo "stands out of the pack. He would sell extremely well."
But Robert Slagle, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, asked if Cuomo could carry Texas, replied: "I doubt it." Without being specifically critical of Cuomo, Slagle said the Dukakis experience has made Texas voters leery of northeastern Democratic presidential candidates. "If they are northeasterners and Democrats, then they have to be northeastern liberals" in the eyes of many Texas voters, he said.
In public and private, Democrats voiced concern that the issue of quotas and affirmative action could hurt the party's nominees in 1992. One official here said a private poll showed that by 58 to 34 percent whites agree that "affirmative action" is "unfair to whites." Paul Goldman, Virginia Democratic chair and an ally of Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, argued that Democrats will do severe damage to themselves unless they aggressively challenge GOP efforts to portray civil rights legislation as a "quota" bill.