PRESIDENT CLINTON said last week that he...


PRESIDENT CLINTON said last week that he "sympathized with the Democratic position [on a balanced budget] but I do not believe that's the appropriate position for the president."

This suggests to some Democrats in Congress that Bill Clinton is not a Democrat. Inevitably there is talk of a challenge to him in 1996, either within the party or by a third party if Clinton keeps control of the Democratic Party.

In fact, one Democrat even implied he would like to see a change in the White House in 1995. Rep. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said at a Democratic caucus, "Maybe we need to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue."

That was a joke, he later said, but some people believe joking is just a way of expressing socially unacceptable true feelings.

Jesse Jackson has been encouraging talk about an intra-party or third-party bid for months. That would be nothing but a protest movement, but there is also talk about a challenge to Clinton by a real Democrat, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. It's probably unlikely that someone of that standing would challenge the president -- or is it?

The last time there was a Democratic president in the White House, he and his party in Congress thought of themselves as "us and them."

That was Jimmy Carter. As his policies became too conservative for Democratic liberals, Sen. Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in the 1980 primaries. Carter won but, wounded, he lost the general election to Ronald Reagan.

Republicans play this game, too. Reagan ran against President Gerald Ford in 1976, on the grounds that Ford was too moderate for conservatives. Ford won but was weakened just enough for Carter to defeat him.

The prime example of a philosophical rift within a party doing itself in is what happened to Republicans in 1912. I mentioned in passing in this space Monday that former President Theodore Roosevelt ran as the nominee of the new "Bull Moose Party" against incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

But before he led that third party, TR tried to take the Republican nomination from Taft. He beat him in 11 of 12 presidential primaries. But Taft controlled the party organization and was easily re-nominated at the convention, 348-107.

A comparable repeat of that today would be Jimmy Carter, having grown more liberal after his return to private life, challenging Clinton and winning the Democratic primaries next year, then losing the nomination, then running as a third party leader. Never happen, I don't think.

In the first place, JC is not as popular with the Democratic rank and file as TR was with Republicans. In the second place, primaries were a new idea in 1912. Their results could be ignored. Not now. If any Democrat beat Clinton in the primaries, he would not be renominated.

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