W HEN PAUL KIRK, the new Chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), told a packed Forum at the Harvard Institute of Politics that we have already entered the post-Reagan era, he demonstrated a naivete that could prove fatal for the Democratic Party. Kirk reassured us that the "Conservative realignment" Democrats feared has not materialized and that all the party has to do to regain power is to wait for the political pendulum to swing back its way. With this kind of attitude among Democratic leaders, they are going to be waiting a long time.
The Democratic Party has problems. Some of them have to do with internal divisions, as a Kirk asserted. But the greatest handicap the party has is its public image, and the reality that image reflects. The Democratic Party is seen as wed to and bogged down by special interest groups, out of touch with the Southern Whites and urban, ethnic blue-collar workers who used to form its core and lacking both decisive leadership and a viable program.
The diffusion of the Democrats' majority coalition and the vacuum of program and leadership are fundamental dilemmas. The "special-interests problem" is largely one of image; it can most easily be solved by skillful management. Moreover, a truly constructive approach to image improvement might go a long way toward providing the kind of unified and strong vision needed to solve the party's deeper conflicts.
Democratic leaders are certainly aware of their failed image, if nothing else. In the last year they have sponsored an endless series of retreats and conferences to analyze the Reagan success, to flagellate Walter Mondale and to muse on their constituents' flight. Unfortunately, the outcome of all his soul-searching seems to have been the conclusion that the Republican triumph is due to the personal popularity of an over-aged actor who temporarily brainwashed the American people. Democratic failures do not run so deep after all, the logic runs. It is just a mood the country has gotten into, a stage it is going through like an errant teenager, and soon America will come back home to the Democratic Party.
T HE DEMOCRATS' SOLUTIONS to their deeper problems seem to consist of denial and rhetoric. They wait for the pendulum while talking about the need to: reshape, reassess assumptions, start to rebuild, shed old images, seize opportunities and, not least, to win.
To his credit, Kirk has made some attempts at substantiative change since he took over the DNC--primarily in attacking the interest-group image. He has eliminated all minority caucuses besides the women's caucus, urged interest-group leaders (especially Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO) not to endorse candidates early in the campaign, abolished midterm conferences, and set an early deadline for completion of the work of the Fairness Commission, which is investigating the way convention delegates are chosen. These changes are intended not only to present a "unified" party to the American public in 1988, but also to move that party rightward.
IT WON'T WORK. By begging Lane Kirkland to stay out, cutting caucuses, and de-emphasizing the Fairness Commission, the Democrats alienate some of their best activists (you know, the people who do that thankless phone bank stuff), lose some of their best contributors, and end up with even less of a program and fewer leaders than they had before. This certainly will not bring the blue-collar worker back.
So, to appeal to the urban worker, the Democrats have started talking about protectionism. To appeal to the Southern white, they have stopped talking about affirmative action. To appeal to the mythical yuppie, they have stopped being "soft on defense." The solution seems to be: To regain majority status, move right. Out-right the right with morality/family rhetoric. But is it possible to out Republican the Republicans? Won't the Democrats simply shift the political spectrum rightward and come out looking just as far left, wimpy, and soft--a pale shadow of the cowboy--booted New Right?
Parroting a moderated version of Reagan rhetoric turns on the hope that a new decade will soon be here and that political moods always change with new decades. This wishing simply will not wash. The Democratic Party cannot afford to abandon the things it has long stood for: economic security, minority rights, education, arms control, and preserving the environment. What Democratic leaders have forgotten how to do is to frame those issues as majority issues, rather than in terms of serving special-interest groups.
It is wise for the Democrats to loosen their public ties with organized groups. But this disentanglement must be accompanied by a strong confirmation of support for the principles those groups are supposed to represent. The main thing should not be the NAACP endorsement, or putting x number of NOW members on a commission, but rather putting forth proposals for job programs and child care for working mothers, and fighting to uphold civil rights measures now being eroded.
F REER OF ORGANIZED groups, the Democrats should now be less afraid to aggressively assert their program rather than being wishy-washy and obsessively middle-of-the-road. They have to stop thinking in terms of left and right, and, trite as it sounds, have the courage of their convictions. They have to start taking risks, because they have nothing to lose.
The one lesson the Democrats have not taken to heart from the Reagan success is that the American people are willing to overlook major policy disagreements with a leader as long as he asserts his policies forcefully enough. Americans worship leadership; that's why patriotism is defined as "my country, right or wrong." America would excuse the Democratic Party being a little wrong as long as it were strong.
A good example is the environment. Toxic waste and acid rain are not the concern only of isolated special interests, nor are they left-wing issues. The special interests in the case of toxic dumping are the chemical companies, in whose interest it is to contaminate public drinking water. Real special interests, the Democrats should remind people more often, are mostly under the Republican umbrella: defense contractors, the tobacco lobby, the NRA, chemical companies. Those groups speak for themselves and no one else, usually against the public interest.
Constructive solutions to the problems of toxic dumping and acid rain are in everyone's interest, and you had better believe that the average urban worker cares about them. There are 1000 Superfund dumpsites in Massachusetts alone, and only 300 towns. Local and state public-interest groups have had enormous success organizing and fundraising in working-class neighborhoods on the hazardous-waste issue, but on the national level Democrats seem either ignorant of the potential of this issue, or afraid to be seen as No-Nukes flower children. Democrats have become accustomed to expressing support for environmental cleanup with the endorsement of Greenpeace, instead of talking about how dumping affects everyone.
The Democrats frame issues as though America were a conglomeration of single-issue groups, and if they could appeal to each one with a different issue, they would have enough groups to form a majority. A large part of the Republican success can be attributed to the unified vision they presented to the American public, incorporating all issues. Americans demonstrated an amazing tolerance for those elements of the vision which did not fit in with their own.
Toxic-waste cleanup is just one issue that could be used by the Democrats to present a vision of a unified hard-working America represented by the Democratic Party against the moneyed Republican special interests. Pentagon reform and arms control framed in economic terms, gun control, the Bradely-Gephardt tax bill, and innovative education and jobs programs could all be presented the same way.
What have the Democrats got to lose?