- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Smart tactics and ideological common sense are the lifeblood of congressional parties. A rich transfusion of either can invigorate a political party, causing it to spread and surge. Yet in recent years, congressional Democrats contracted anemia in both.

Turning policy issues into permanent invective, it’s unclear what the Democrats stand for other than opposition to President Bush. And their bloodstreams appear constitutionally incapable of absorbing middle-of-the-road foreign and domestic policies. Maybe a reality TV makeover show is in order: “A Moderate Eye for the Democrat Guy.”More depressing for the Democrats is that change in the congressional parties happens gradually, meaning their move back to power will be a crawl rather than a sprint. It sometimes looks like the Democrats simply don’t have enough competitive seats on the electoral map to retake the majority.

Yet smart leadership tactics can also shape the direction and public perception of a political party, combating certain demographic shifts.

The House Democratic Caucus begins its annual retreat in Williamsburg today, a time for party leaders to map out a strategy for the year. Democratic House leaders could draw some useful insights from the operation of the House during the years of Speaker Sam Rayburn. How he managed a more diverse Democratic caucus, and some of the factors that led to the decline of moderate-to-conservative lawmakers, might signal to Democrats that they have a long way to go, but might also point them in the right direction.

Democrats might ask: What would Rayburn do? In a new book, “How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change,” political scientist Nelson Polsby does that and more, painting a fascinating portrait of transformation in the House over the past half century.

Mr. Polsby highlights the tactical balancing of the House Democratic leaders during Rayburn’s 20-year speakership between 1940-1961, when he managed a broad coalition of southern conservatives and northern liberals. There was a lot of accommodation and moderating of policies during that period. Citing “sectional rivalry _ southern Members versus the rest,” Mr. Polsby writes that “Sam Rayburn basically closed the [Democratic] caucus down as an instrument of party leadership.” Former Speaker John Nance Garner urged Rayburn to use the caucus more aggressively to promote unified party positions, a strategy that Rayburn rejected because he believed airing differences in public would be too divisive. He preferred to work behind the scenes, but he knew he needed both sides to win.

Rayburn’s death in 1961 coincided roughly with the birth of the Democratic Study Group (DSG), an informal collection of lawmakers agitating within the caucus to take more liberal positions. Over the last 40 years the DSG prevailed.

Mr. Polsby also reports some extraordinary data about the collapse of the moderate-to-conservative element within the Democratic Party in the South in the post-Rayburn era. For example, in 1958, looking at House members from southern states, conservative Democrats held a formidable share of seats (46.2 percent were conservative Democrats, 46.2 percent were mainstream Democrats and 6.6 percent were Republican). In 1996 southern members became not only dramatically more Republican, but the remaining Democrats were far less conservative; according to Mr. Polsby (only 7.2 percent were conservative Democrats, 32.8 percent were mainstream Democrats and 60 percent were Republicans).

Redistricting and population shifts contributed to these trends. But a Democratic leadership more accommodating to ideological diversity could have helped a broader coalition of Democrats survive. Rayburn managed to hold together a congressional majority that collectively reflected the views of America nationally more than the current Democratic Caucus in Congress. He did so principally through old fashioned give-and-take, and by being open to differences of opinion.

After Rayburn’s death, groups like the DSG fought hard to purge the congressional party of its conservative-moderate wing. And lawmakers running for Democratic leadership positions clearly sided with liberal activists. And while the DSG succeeded, its actions also created a congressional party collectively out of step with mainstream America. Can party leaders this weekend begin a tactical transfusion toward the middle, embracing more moderate policies and rhetoric; or are Democrats now so ideologically homogeneous that only one blood type need apply?

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