For the past two days, top Democratic officials struggled to affirm the competitive strength of their party, but their proud rhetoric did little to stanch the flow of blood from the partisan wounds of the Persian Gulf War.
In speech after speech, such leaders as Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.), House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) sought to flex the muscles of a party that once dominated the domestic national agenda.
"Today we gather, and it is clear we are proud to be Democrats," Brown declared. "We'll be tough, aggressive."
As each spoke during the DNC's spring meeting, however, evidence of Democratic difficulties continued to emerge:
The strongest applause yesterday did not go to any of the repeated denunciations of the Bush administration or to the numerous calls for a revival of Democratic commitment to health care, education, worker protection and a host of other domestic issues.
Instead it went to Foley when he denounced Democratic consultants who criticize the party: "Those who sup at our table and sleep in our home should be supporting our party."
On both days of the DNC gathering, the problems of fielding a presidential candidate continued to surface. Yesterday, Rockefeller said in his speech that "the 1992 presidential campaign will not be a cakewalk for George Bush. . . . Democrats, it's time to take off the gloves." But at a meeting with reporters after the speech, Rockefeller rejected any possibility of making the fight himself, declaring that he will not run for president in 1992.
On Friday, Gephardt gave what many considered to be a rousing speech with potential presidential overtones, calling for tough trade legislation, enactment of civil rights legislation and a major federal mandate for expanded health care. Just before giving the speech, however, Gephardt met with reporters on Capitol Hill, where he appeared to further downgrade any possibility of a run. "I am not running. I am enjoying being majority leader and doing my job."
Even though the DNC is one of the largest single contingents of voting delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where the party's presidential nominee is selected, four politicians who are considered potential candidates turned down the chance to speak at the gathering, according to DNC officials. A DNC spokeswoman said Sens. Lloyd Bentsen (Tex.), Albert Gore Jr. (Tenn.), Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and George J. Mitchell (Maine), the Senate majority leader, all had other commitments.
The most consistent rebuttal to damaged Democratic prospects offered by Gephardt, Brown, Foley and DNC staff members is that as national euphoria over the gulf war victory subsides, attention again will turn to domestic terrain, giving Democrats a shot at reviving their fortunes.
"This is the party that represents, cares about, does things for the people of this country," Gephardt said in his Friday speech.
"When the American people feel economically insecure, they turn to the Democratic Party for leadership," Brown said. "All George Bush has offered in the way of leadership at home is a 21-veto salute to delay and inaction."
Two-time presidential aspirant Jesse L. Jackson said Friday Democrats "have kept politics close to where the people are. That's why we control the House and Senate."
Former DNC chairman Charles T. Manatt said: "As political leaders, we have to be upbeat and positive. To give us a chance to compete, we have to realistically deal with three commanding issues: defense, foreign policy and the economy. . . . We have to put forth these three issues in a much stronger way."
The Louisiana Democratic Party chairman, James J. Brady, said, "I'm not worried that people aren't rushing to the starting gate. Now that the war is over, candidates will emerge and begin formulating strategies."
Iowa Democratic Chairman John Roehrick countered, however: "It's time. . . . Every month that goes by is one month less that we have to focus on the 1992 election."
A far more sour note was voiced by Boston University President John R. Silber, the defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Massachusetts, who told reporters: "There is no appeal to a party that has to prepare a recipe for disaster" in order to win an election. "If we can't do better than the Republicans are doing, we are a sorry lot."
Silber and Jackson, opposite poles on the Democratic ideological spectrum, each left open the possibility of presidential bids.
Jackson, who sought the party's presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988, said, "I know if I were to run I could win. . . . Clearly, it's a matter worth considering."
Silber, who had appeared to rule out a 1992 campaign, said, "It's a contingent world."