WASHINGTON -- For many Democrats in the House of Representatives, their fondest wish for 1996 is not the re-election of President Clinton but regaining control of the House -- and, above all, returning Speaker Newt Gingrich to the minority.
So demoralized, however, are the House Democrats that they may be frittering away whatever chance they have had of accomplishing that delicious goal.
The decision by Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado to step aside is only the latest in a series of retirements by prominent members whose seats would have been considered relatively safe next year if they had chosen to seek another term.
With the defection of several Southern conservatives and other vacancies, the Democrats need a gain of 19 or 20 seats to recapture control of the House and send Mr. Gingrich back to braying on C-SPAN. It's not unrealistic. The turnout in presidential election years usually is relatively higher among core Democratic constituencies such as black voters, whose low voting performance in 1994 was one of the reasons the party lost so many seats last year. Moreover, perhaps 20 to 25 seats were won by Republicans with such narrow margins last time that they might be viewed as vulnerable in their first campaigns for re-election.
The Democrats have been encouraged recently by evidence in the opinion polls and some off-year and special elections that the voters are uneasy about the radical nature of the changes being promulgated by the new Republican majority in Congress. The reaction against proposed changes in Medicare has been particularly striking.
Mr. Gingrich himself has become a burden for House Republicans. His shoot-from-the-mouth style as speaker has sent his negatives skyrocketing from about 35 percent to 65 percent in some recent surveys.
Although the Democrats still may lose former Rep. Norman Mineta's seat in California next week, professionals following that campaign have found evidence that running against the speaker and rightist extremism can appeal to voters. There was similar evidence in the success of the Democrats in the Kentucky gubernatorial election last month.
But the Democrats are making their task far more difficult with the retirement of so many members who have found that life in the minority can be unpleasant -- and particularly when dealing with a majority as partisan and self-assured as the Republicans who now control the House.
Not all the Democratic retirements give the Republicans a good opportunity. Ms. Schroeder's district, for example, is sufficiently Democratic that the party will be at least nominally favored to win it. The Democrats also will be favored to hold the seats of Harry Johnston in Florida and Cardiss Collins of Illinois.
The same cannot be said of Democratic seats held by Anthony Beilenson of California, Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi, Andy Jacobs of Indiana or Charles Wilson of Texas. Their success has been largely due to their personal strengths with their constituencies. Republicans will be favored in Mr. Montgomery's district and no worse than even bets in the others.
The real problem for the Democrats, however, is not simply the exposure of more seats to the Republicans. It is the lack of a unifying theme to use as a way of nationalizing the House campaign as the Republicans did so successfully in 1994 by running against President Clinton and the Democratic establishment then controlling Congress.
The president's standing with the electorate has improved somewhat in recent weeks. And Democrats are encouraged by signs of weakness in the support for his most likely opponent, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. But there is not yet a Democratic agenda coherent and comprehensive enough to include both the president and the party's Senate and House candidates.
The Democrats are hoping that the Republicans will trigger a backlash among voters unnerved by extremism. But that is not the same as having a positive Democratic Party message.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun' Washington bureau.