Washington politics is a constant collection of amazements. Over the life of the Bush presidency, one of the most stunning developments has been the unfolding cohesiveness of the Democrats, the closing of what I call the Charlie-to-Charlie spectrum.
From the most liberal member of Congress (say, Charlie Rangel of Harlem) to the most conservative Democrat walking the halls (Texas's Charlie Stenholm, for instance), party members have begun talking with one voice, complaining about the way Republicans are managing the legislature. Even though Charlie Rangel wants to bring back the military draft for middle-class kids, and Charlie Stenholm had to run a picture of himself with George Bush to get reelected for the 13th time in 2000, both of them have ended up in pretty much the same place: deeply resentful of the GOP leadership. The Democrats have bound their wounds with outrage. And so at the start of this 2004 campaign season, a unified, energized Democratic Party is taking the field.
After a meeting with John Kerry last week, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi bragged about the party's unity and about how closely Hill Democrats were going to be working with Kerry:
" For the past year Democrats have built our unity, the highest-rated unity since 1960 among House Democrats. We are united around core Democratic principles," she said. "We have come together [with Kerry] and there is a great compatibility, I think, between our messages."
It is a revitalized party, taught to walk upright again by Howard Dean and then inherited by John Kerry. But there is still a kind of "Hail Mary" feel to the election. The excitement of the moment can be easily dashed for Democrats, and they know it. The ball is in the air, but it'll take a long eight months to find out the result: touchdown, interception, or dropped pass.
And so the important question is: How long will the unity last?
It is too early to call them signs of trouble, but there have been hints about what could divide the Democrats. And both times, not surprisingly, the problems were the handiwork of clever GOP maneuvers.
First in Texas: After being redistricted out of any chance of reelection to his original seat, Chris Bell, a white, popular freshman from Houston, decided to run in a new district where the population is 40 percent black and 70 percent minority overall. Bell lost by a huge margin to Al Green, an African American attorney who had the backing of several members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Bell's loss caused hard feelings among some House Democrats, mostly white, who felt Bell had been undercut by his black colleagues. The caucus members argued that the seat was an open one, and that Bell was not the incumbent. Still, the feelings haven't faded.
"There are a lot of people who are mad about this, and it's not going away," said one leadership aide.
Pelosi and her leadership team have decided to treat the whole matter as a harmless internal dustup. But some members of the caucus are demanding guidelines for similar situations in the future. That's not going to happen.
"This is an internal situation that goes on in our caucus all the time," insists Bob Matsui, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "When situations like this arise you go through a little bit of a struggle, and at the end of the day we embrace each other."
That's either tough political pragmatism or wishful thinking.
The Texas redistricting was the brainchild of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who believes that Texas is an increasingly Republican state whose congressional delegation ought to be increasingly Republican as well. So every white Democrat in the Texas delegation -- including Stenholm, who must run against an incumbent Republican -- is going to have a much tougher time getting reelected in November.
Back in Washington this week, the unified Democrats were again at odds over a resolution that praised the troops and the Iraqi people on the first anniversary of the war. Democrats say they are behind the idea of celebrating the troops, but they take issue with the resolution's affirmation that the world is a safer place because of the offensive. While they are unwilling to endorse the president's policies, they're afraid of voting against the resolution for fear of being tagged as unpatriotic.
In a Capitol elevator Wednesday, two Democratic members -- who were going to vote no -- discussed the possibility of a compromise: "I hear we're talking about voting 'present' on the final passage." (In other words, they'd vote to record their presence -- not for or against the resolution.)
The other Democrat, eyes ablaze, responded, "No, we're not; that's for the people who probably want to vote 'Yes.'"
On the war resolution, Charlie Rangel voted no, and Charlie Stenholm was a yea.
Not even that could affect their unity, says, Peter Carey, political director of the DCCC.
"The unifying factor?" he asks. "The Republicans."
Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. His column about politics appears each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.
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