Rational Exuberance

There is a strange, rare political species quietly roaming the landscape these days. Long endangered and occasionally thought to be extinct, its sudden re-emergence is as startling as it is sublime, particularly on Capitol Hill, where it seemed to face a fate on par with what the dinosaurs endured.

Here, of course, I speak of the Hopeful Democrat.

And I'm laying odds that before too long there will be an office in town with "HDC" -- Hopeful Democratic Coalition/Caucus -- stenciled on the door. There will be a Starbucks nearby, of course, and a house account for Cosi-catered lunches. And on this hoped-for day, they will to sit around a big conference table and reminisce about the bad old days, when George W. Bush was in the White House and Tom DeLay was House majority leader. They will hold seminars on how to beat a sitting president when he's got more than $150 million in the bank, or how to win back the House when that seems redistricted out of the realm of possibility.

It's the spring of an election year, so it's hardly noteworthy that politicians are hopeful, but the odd thing about these Hill Democrats is that their hope seems rational, reasonable, and based on something more than just wishful thinking or emotional muscle memory from their majority days. They have a plan, they have money, and they know what they are up against, none of which has been true the last three years. House Democrats have an election plan that shows the potential for some efficacy in a very tough environment, and suddenly they don't find themselves working against a White House whose popularity numbers made it seem, in the words of one leading Democrat, "like fighting back a tidal wave."

"If the president, in the 'in year,' is attacking us before we have a nominee, and he's still trying to consolidate his base, I think there is reason for cautious optimism among Democrats," says one cautiously optimistic Democrat.

The caution is advisable. Republicans have a 228-to-205 advantage in the House, which means that Democrats need a net pickup of 12 seats to win back the House, something most handicapping puts firmly in the long-shot category. Redistricting in Texas alone could add seven seats to the GOP column, but the horses never know the odds. And they look at a recent Kentucky win and see the chance of more to come in South Dakota and Louisiana, when House Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin leaves. Among the 45 targeted Republicans, Democrats think they could beat Representatives Rick Renzi in Arizona and Bob Beauprez in Colorado, both freshmen with serious challengers.

But maybe the most noticeable thing is not the new optimism so much as the absence of the old gloom. The disappointment that turned to depression, after Florida in 2000, may finally be in remission.

"There is a very heightened sense of optimism of winning the presidency and winning back the House," says House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "It is palpable. We are more optimistic and energized, and that has to do with the president's decreasing credibility."

"'Tis true, 'tis true," said one leadership aide laconically, as if she could hardly believe that it was actually happening.

Some of the reasons are obvious. "You need look no further than the amount of excitement, the size of the turnout in the Democratic primaries, to understand why were excited," says Brad Woodhouse, who works for New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine on the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Who would have thought that after the midterm that Democrats would be excited about anything?"

The 2002 midterms just added salt to open wounds, it's true, but the real damage goes back to Florida two years prior. Suddenly being in the minority was different, when the White House veto pen was not in their control. Democrats seemed stunned by their diminished status, and the most prominent response was to sulk. The September 11 attacks only served to add confusion to the despair.

Said Woodhouse: "We've had a real roller-coaster ride. We won the presidential election and had it taken away; we took the majority in the Senate and then lost it; and, for a while, we saw extraordinarily high poll numbers for the president. So yeah, there was a sense of worry."

Worry does not begin to capture the mood that had overtaken Democrats. But somewhere along the way the gloom turned to anger, and anger to rage, and therein lay the birth of the Howard Dean movement. There will be a lot of debate, and probably a paper or two done, about the role of anger this election cycle. It will present itself as an examination of the Dean candidacy, with a subhead that opts in one of two directions: Either it will consider the immeasurable contributions Dean made to the revival of the Democratic Party or it will elucidate the point that anger is not a political strategy. But maybe the best title would be: "Anger: It's not nothing."

One of the remarkable ironies of the Dean campaign, seeing as there was a sense that congressional Democrats were not doing the job, is that the former governor's assaults on the president resonated. Granted, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the Hill, but the truth is that Dean had a microphone that Hill Democrats could never command. In many ways, the Dean blueprint was written by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after the debacle of the 2002 midterms, when they seemed to decide, finally, that they had nothing to lose.

In their 2003 response to the State of the Union address, the leaders talked about the president's "credibility gap." And then they never really let up.

In one of the most truthful political speeches of our time, Al Gore said "that no matter how hard the loss, defeat might serve as well as victory to shape the soul and let the glory out."

And that is what may have happened on a long, ugly night last November, when it took House Republicans nearly three hours to pass their Medicare bill. It was an important bill, and if the vote ended when it should have, after 15 minutes, the Republican would have lost. But they twisted enough arms in the next two hours and 39 minutes to win.

"For three hours tonight, the seniors of America won the vote on Medicare prescription-drug coverage. But then this vote was stolen from us by the Republicans," Pelosi lamented.

The recessed win, crusted in defeat, seemed to revive Democrats. "It gave people the idea that we can beat these guys," says one top Democratic aide.

Then there is Ben Chandler, who showed up in town this week not as a junior congressman from Kentucky but as an omen. A couple of months ago, Chandler was part of what was the 2003 gubernatorial losing streak that began in California and ran through Mississippi and Kentucky (before a win in Louisiana halted the skid). Chandler, 44, the former state attorney general, lost the Kentucky race to then-GOP Representative Ernie Fletcher, but now he's a harbinger. Democrats think that his 12-point special-election win last week -- in a red state against a GOP candidate tied to the president -- means this is not a hopeless contest anymore.

"You know what the Republicans must know?" asks Woodhouse, "They must know this: They must know that they are not invincible, and we know we can win, and that's the difference between now and right after the midterms."

Orchestra, please.

Terence Samuel is the chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.