Democrats ponder a future under Bush

By Susan Milligan, Globe Staff, 12/8/2000

ASHINGTON - Democrats, bowing to the growing possibility that Vice President Al Gore will not be president next year, are wrestling with what their postelection strategy should be.

Should they accept Governor George W. Bush of Texas as the next president, despite their fervent belief that Gore really won the greatest number of votes in Florida?

Or should they use the lingering questions about Bush's legitimacy to try to undermine Bush and his agenda?

''I'm really torn,'' said US Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York. ''Most people are realizing that it doesn't look too good for Gore right now, and coupled with this is a genuine feeling that Gore really won Florida.''

Still, ''once he [Bush] is president, we really should give him a chance to govern,'' Engel said.

It is a political and moral conundrum for Democrats, who remember the caustic atmosphere that prevailed on Capitol Hill almost exactly two years ago, when President Clinton was impeached. The wounds from that episode continue to afflict Congress and hamper its ability to gain cross-party consensus.

Democrats, already looking ahead to 2002 congressional elections, when they have a chance of retaking control of one or both houses of Congress, are also worried about the political fallout of their actions: Will partisan clashes with Bush help or hurt their prospects?

In 1995, House Republicans, led by former speaker Newt Gingrich, lost several seats after Gingrich refused to work out a budget deal with President Clinton, resulting in a government shutdown. An appearance of poor political sportsmanship, some Democrats worry, could damage their numbers and their image.

But the resentment and anger the Democrats feel is also affecting their political calculations.

Democrats are united in their view that Gore is the rightful winner, and that a Bush presidency would be a four-year-long reminder that they were robbed of the White House - just as Clinton's last two years in office have been a constant affirmation that the Republicans failed to expel him.

Gore himself is nurturing such loyalty; he called US Representative Martin Meehan, Democrat of Lowell, Wednesday night to thank him for his support. Meehan said that Gore appeared to still believe he could win, and he promised Meehan that his campaign finance bill would be the first legislation a Gore White House would send to Capitol Hill.

But in private conversations, Democrats admit they have virtually given up hope that Gore will prevail. Even in public comments, members show their pessimism.

''I think we're on the short end of the stick,'' said US Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.

''If the fat lady hasn't started to sing, she's clearing her throat,'' said Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana.

The only victory Democrats envision now is a moral one: the proof, perhaps months down the road, that Gore got more votes in Florida, at least according to the counting rules the Gore campaign wanted.

Most presume a ballot count will be done by a news or academic organization.

''George Bush would be in an awful position if we learn six months late that he lost Florida,'' said US Representative Richard Neal, Democrat of Springfield, echoing remarks made frequently by Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman.

But the ballots are now viewed by Democrats as evidence whose import will be felt only when it is too late to matter.

''People are angry. They're disappointed. They're frustrated. They're impatient,'' said US Representative Bill Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy, who won his 1996 primary after successfully contesting ballots. But ''for Gore, it's `what can I do?' It's a chapter that's closed,'' Delahunt said.

Still, many Democrats are eager to have the ballots counted some day, even if it is not done in time to make Gore president. A postinauguration ''victory'' for Gore would vindicate the vice president, immunize him from criticism that he dragged out the election in the courts, and give the Democrats more moral authority in the 2004 presidential race, some in the party believe.

''A lot of people are going to say, `we wuz robbed.' A lot of people are going to say Bush is an illegitimate president,'' said Democratic stalwart Frank Mankiewicz, a former staff member for Robert F. Kennedy. ''That's what I intend to say.''

US Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, likened a late ballot count to the use of DNA evidence to reexamine the Boston Strangler case. ''As long as the ballots remain uncounted, there will be millions of Americans who will wonder if Al Gore has won,'' Markey said. ''That will leave a permanent quesion mark next to this election. I think many Democrats are going to feel angry that he had the election taken from him.''

But Democrats are also wary that four years of public grousing over a ''stolen'' election will make them look petty and self-serving to an electorate that may hunger for genuine bipartisanship in Washington.

''It doesn't do you any good at all,'' former New York governor Mario Cuomo said. ''I don't want to win on a wave of resentment and indignation. I want to win on a wave of positiveness.''