AUGUST 28, 1996
This is the first Democratic National Convention held in 40 years where the party hasn't held a majority in either of the Houses of Congress. Kwame Holman talks to incumbent and hopeful members about the Democrats chances of retaking power on Capitol Hill.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the '96 elections.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Complete NewsHour coverage of the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
KWAME HOLMAN: This convention has been accused of lacking news but not history. 1996 is the first time in 40 years Democrats have convened a convention without having a majority in either House of Congress. And so one by one, during this convention, Democratic Senators, House members, and congressional challengers have taken turns at the convention podium, urging not only the reelection of Bill Clinton to the White House, but the return of their party's control of Capitol Hill.
REP. LYNN RIVERS, (D) Michigan: Just think how much more we can accomplish, how much healthier our future will be when we reelect Bill Clinton, when Democrats take back the Congress, and together we put families first into the 21st century.
KWAME HOLMAN: And when Richard Gephardt, the current House Minority Leader, took the podium last night, delegates held signs showing they're serious about Democrats regaining the majority in Congress.
PEOPLE CHANTING: Gephardt, Gephardt!
REP. MARTIN FROST, (D) Texas: I think we have an excellent chance. We only need to pick up 19 seats. The average swing from one party to the other in the last 50 years since World War II has been 24 seats. All we have to do is hit the average, and we'll be back in control.
KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Congressman Martin Frost is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the man directing the Democrats' comeback effort.
REP. MARTIN FROST: We have recruited a new class of Democrats who will reflect and support the common sense mainstream law and order values of America's working families.
KWAME HOLMAN: Frost is leading a major effort to raise money for candidates but says President Clinton, himself, can be of help.
REP. MARTIN FROST: Well, our attitude is the better that Clinton does, the better chance we have of carrying the House. I don't think it's a one-to-one relationship, but clearly we want him to do well. We want him to win, and to the extent that he does well, that helps us.
KWAME HOLMAN: And, Frost says, the President can be of particular help in the South, in states like Tennessee, where Republicans picked up two House and both Senate seats in the last election. Bill Purcell is Speaker of the Tennessee House.
BILL PURCELL, House Speaker, Tennessee: The Democratic Party needs to find the high middle ground that's basically the two yellow lines, if you will, in the middle of the road. This Democratic Party, this President, and this Vice President have found the high middle ground. The congressional candidates that have in Tennessee and by and large across the country are right there in the middle where the people in America want them to be.
KWAME HOLMAN: Six term Congressman Bart Gordon barely survived the Republican revolution in Tennessee two years ago. He's in another close race this year but thinks he can get only marginal help from President Clinton.
REP. BART GORDON, (D) Tennessee: And he's going to turn out a lot of folks that wouldn't ordinarily turn out, which will be beneficial. And certainly if he carries the district, that would be even better. But I don't think that, that I can count on or really any congressional candidates can count on just coattails. I think they're going to have to win it on their own.
KWAME HOLMAN: And that's what Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah plans to do because some of the President's moves to the center are moves away from the interests of his constituents.
REP. CHAKA FATTAH, (D) Pennsylvania: There's some disagreement on some issues, quite candidly on welfare reform, but I think that we could all find something out of a hundred that we may disagree with, but he's still in the 90, 95 percent range. In my district, we'll both run very well. Uh, I won by a very high margin in the last win, and I'll do very well.
REP. MARTIN FROST: Clearly, to the extent the President has moved to the center, that's helped in Southern districts, that's helped in some Midwestern districts. There will be some districts where--one-party districts like Chaka's district in Philadelphia--where the local Congressman does help the President. To the extent that he can turn out his base of support that helps the President quite a bit, particularly if he's unopposed or only has very minor opposition.
KWAME HOLMAN: During convention week, congressional Democrats have taken their campaign to retake the Congress out into the communities in and around Chicago. Yesterday, several joined Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at a town meeting in the West Side neighborhood of Humboldt Park. But Illinois Senator Paul Simon is a symbol of the difficulty Democrats will have taking control. Simon is retiring, as are seven other Democratic Senators, and the party is trying to retain the seats of thirty Democratic retirees in the House. But they say they'll be helped by a new Democratic agenda for the fall campaign.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT, Minority Leader: We lost the election, no denying it. There wasn't a Republican incumbent who lost in the Congress in 1994. That was a message. We took it very seriously, and we decided among ourselves that we needed to identify what we would do if we're given the chance by the American people. And this agenda is about people's kitchen table, everyday problems: jobs, wages, health care, education, pensions, fighting crime. I'll bet you anything you want if you went out, outside of this building and went to these neighborhoods, door to door around here right now, those are the issues people would talk to you about. That's what our agenda is about.
KWAME HOLMAN: But recent opinion polls show that both the President and the Republican-led Congress have benefited from the compromises they reached on welfare reform, health insurance, and minimum wage, an indication Americans might prefer shared leadership in Washington. Congressional Democrats don't think so.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE, Minority Leader: You know what people tell me in South Dakota is that they remember the government shutdown and they remember the extreme agenda that we've had to fight now for the last 18 months. And were it not for the fact that this President and Democrats in Congress stood up against the extreme approach that the Republicans took, we would have seen an entirely different outcome. So I think as a result of that deep-seated memory, I'm not worried at all about what views the electorate may have about this Republican Congress; it's already there.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY, (D) Washington: Personally in the Senate I have a number of good friends who are Republicans that I work with on different issues, but the last two years have been so political, everything has just divided Democrat and Republican, win or lose, and I think that is a result of having Republicans in the House and Senate and a White House that's Democratic.
SEN. PAUL SIMON, (D) Illinois: Have a Democratic Congress does not mean a rubber stamp for whatever the President wants. We found that out in the first two years of the Clinton administration. He was pushing health care and a Democratic Congress, and in my opinion unfortunately didn't pass health care, so people should try and pick the best candidates but I think a Congress that can work more closely with the President is a healthy thing.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, trotted out the new candidates who will be challenging four Senate seats this November.
SEN. BOB KERREY, (D) Nebraska: There is no empirical evidence that Americans want the body government, none whatsoever. There's no empirical evidence in any state that somebody's going to say I'm going to vote for a Democratic President and for a Republican member of Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, newcomer Steve Beshear of Kentucky who is challenging Republican Senator Mitch McConnell says he's already gotten assurances that the President will campaign for him.
STEVE BESHEAR, Senate Candidate: The President was in Kentucky last Sunday, and one of the first words out of his mouth when, when he started speaking was, I want you to send me Steve Beshear to the United States Senate because I need his help.
He's going to be in Kentucky again Friday and Saturday. We very much want him there, and he very much wants to be there, and I'm--I am confident and I am convinced that he wants a Democratic Congress because he wants to move this country forward.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, other Democratic congressional candidates will be listening especially closely tomorrow evening when President Clinton delivers his acceptance speech looking for indications of just how available he'll be to campaign for them.