WASHINGTON -- Like a groggy boxer after a knockout, the Democratic contingent in the House is just now picking itself up off the mat and facing life as the minority.
It is not going well. The former barons of Capitol Hill are still so dazed and dispirited nearly three months after the November elections that they're having an identity crisis: They can't agree on who they are or what they stand for.
They're not even sure what hit them. A clear strategy for fighting back has not emerged.
"We're all at sea on some rafts strung together with twigs and bailing wire we found on the beach, paddling along and doing the best we can to stay together until help arrives," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a liberal Hawaii Democrat. "It's like the cleanup after a disaster. It's taking some time, and everybody's impatient."
Most of the tactics Democratic leaders have come up with so far have been negative: Attack House Speaker Newt Gingrich and discredit the Republican "Contract with America."
The rank and file, fearful that no one will vote for them again because they've lost the power of purse and patronage, are desperate for some positive theme to reach voters who are tired of partisan feuding.
"We need some kind of formula or concept, which is not liberal or centrist, that all Democrats can embrace," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat. "The jury is still out on whether we're going to get there."
Partly because of the drubbing in the November election, some House Democrats say there's not much confidence that either President Clinton or Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, will come up with the answer.
Mr. Clinton, who will deliver his State of the Union address before Congress tonight, so far doesn't seem to figure in the calculations, say some Democrats. Many say privately that they are not looking to Mr. Clinton for leadership in shaping their agenda.
Others, not ready to write off the president, nevertheless wonder if he has the political resilience to rebound.
"We're just like everyone else in the country: waiting to see if there is any way in the world he can bounce back," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat.
Group turns to Colin Powell
A few other House Democrats have already concluded that Mr. Clinton's political wounds are fatal. A small group of both liberals and conservatives who don't yet want to be identified is privately trying to talk retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, into seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1996.
General Powell, who served two Republican presidents and is also highly popular in the GOP, remains noncommittal about his political ambitions, if any.
Mr. Gephardt, the former majority leader who now stands at the top of his party in the House after the election defeat of former Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington, has proved a disappointment to some Democrats.
One-fourth of the 204 Democrats refused last month to support Mr. Gephardt's bid for minority leader in protest of what they believed to be his role in their party's loss of the House.
"It's never a good idea to give the keys to another vehicle to the same guys who were driving when the car was wrecked last time," said Rep. Gene Taylor, a Mississippi Democrat.
Since the election, Mr. Gephardt has tried to heal the damaged relations within his party by including all the factions in the House leadership.
He rejected the suggestion of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat, that he follow Mr. Gingrich's example and consolidate power in his own office.
"My style isn't to run things from the top down, but from the bottom up," Mr. Gephardt explained.
The result has been a huge, unwieldy leadership structure, albeit for a minority party. A dozen leadership posts in the last Congress, when the Democrats were in the majority, have more than doubled to 27 minority leadership posts, with what appear to be overlapping responsibilities.
Mr. Gephardt says the Democratic leaders now meet more often than they did when the party actually ran the House, but they don't seem able to agree on where to go.
Strength in diversity
"Our party's diversity is its greatest strength, but it's also our greatest weakness," Mr. Cardin said.
As House Republicans try to meet the 100-day deadline promised in their "Contract with America," the House Democrats have yet to present their legislative plans.
Mr. Gephardt predicted that over the next two years Democrats would offer a series of alternatives to GOP proposals that would represent their "different vision" for America.
"You don't create a vision in a day," he said in an interview yesterday. "It takes time."
The Democrats' most successful tactic so far this year -- the daily focus on Mr. Gingrich's book deal -- was a free-lance project of Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the No. 2 House Democrat.
While Mr. Bonior was able to put Mr. Gingrich on the defensive and take some of the steam out of the GOP momentum, some of his colleagues worry that such attacks will not endear the party to voters eager to give the Republicans a chance.
Americans support the Republican agenda by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a Wall Street Journal poll published Friday, and are more optimistic than they have been in two years that Congress is now on the right track.
Mr. Gephardt has taken a couple stabs at offering his own proposals but has drawn mixed results. Two days before Mr. Clinton made a prime-time address in December to announce his proposed middle-class tax cut, Mr. Gephardt offered his own tax-cut plan.
The House leader both annoyed the White House and confounded some colleagues who want the Democrats to take a stand in favor of reducing the deficit rather than engage the Republicans in a bidding war over tax cuts.