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Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2002 / 8 Kislev, 5763

Roger Simon

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Gephardt's people would like to regroup on Gore's windpipe | The Democrats are now in disarray? Gosh, when weren't they?

"Disarray is a state we visit frequently," one party elder said after last week's midterm drubbing. "There was the Republican tidal wave in '94, there was impeachment in '98, the loss in Florida in 2000 -- disarray is something we do."

But as the Democrats prepare to wander in the desert without control of the House or Senate, they do so without a Moses: Bill Clinton is off building his presidential library, the Democratic leader in the House just resigned his post, the Democratic leader in the Senate is tainted by defeat, and many in the party are grumbling that the current field of 2004 presidential aspirants -- the "Six-Pack" of Al Gore, Richard Gephardt, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean -- are just a bunch of would-be has-beens.

"Within the party, the political equation for 2004 has been changed," says Donna Brazile, chairman of the party's Voting Rights Institute. "We have seen too many of our elected officials hugging this wartime president. We need somebody with vision, and no such person is out there now."

It has long been said that when Democrats form a firing squad, they stand in a circle, and within hours of their defeat this year, the ammunition was already being passed around.

The first victim was Gephardt, who resigned his leadership position after four unsuccessful attempts to regain control of the House. Rep. Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee, who wants Gephardt's job, led the attack, saying: "The manager in the clubhouse could be the most beloved fellow in the clubhouse, but if he can't produce victories for the team, you have to find another job for him."

To Gephardt, however, this was all about presidential politics. "That was Gore generated," Steve Elmendorf, Gephardt's chief of staff, says of Ford's assault. "He is Gore's guy. And I must say Gore was extraordinarily graceless in his Barbara Walter's interview in his attack on the congressional leadership."

With the bodies of the Democratic fallen still warm, Gore went on ABC to say, "Democrats should not mistake the magnitude of this loss; there has to be a major regrouping."

Right now, Gephardt's people would like to regroup on Gore's windpipe. "The congressional leadership stood with Gore in 2000, stood with him in Florida, worked for him and never questioned him," Elmendorf says. So why is Gore on the attack? "I take it as a sign he is running for president," Elmendorf says.

But, then again, who isn't? The problem for the Democrats is that, after last Tuesday's defeat, many in the party now want to throw all the babies out with the bathwater and search for new babies.

"Both the rank and file in the party and the Washington chattering classes are saying we need new blood," says Chris Lehane, Al Gore's press secretary in 2000. "But that is easier said than done."

As a sign of how difficult it is, none of the names being tossed around are very realistic contenders, including Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, James McGreevey of New Jersey and Mark Warner of Virginia. And though some would like to see Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York run, she almost certainly would rather face Jeb Bush in '08 than George Bush in '04.

"We need somebody not scarred by battle," says Brazile. "We need a new tone, a new song; we need new music. All the old records are scratched."

Whatever new songs the Democrats start singing, however, they are going to more closely resemble gangsta rap than love songs when it comes to George Bush. If there is anything the Democrats agree on -- and there probably isn't -- it's that the party has been far too easy on the president.

"As a party, we were intimidated by Sept. 11, and there was a fear of taking on the behemoth of George Bush," says Democratic political consultant David Axelrod. "But that is what we have to do. We either have to stand for something and win or lose, or stand for nothing and lose for sure."

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate