Remember Sam Rayburn; Unifying the Democrats
Byline: Gary J. Andres, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …