Washington — In the shadows, away from the fanfare and spotlight on the new Reagan administration, the Democrats are quietly preparing for their revival. The loser's privacy suits them fine for the moment.
They have a formal agenda: The 363-member Democratic National Committee will meet in Washington Feb. 26-28 to pick a new chairman, who will preside over the next four- year political cycle. Then the chairman will schedule a DNC session in early June to work on key policy, commission, and organization thrusts.
Informally, after three months since the election to ponder their defeat, the Democrats have reached tentative conclusions:
* The party organization -- from fund raising and candidate recruitment, to basic voter attitude research -- reached an "abysmal" low last fall, as one DNC official puts it.
* The broad ideological cut of Democratic cloth, suited to "the average man" and the fight for civil liberties and human equality, was not rejected in the last election. But the party needs to apply Democratic principles to evolving issues instead of harking back to the legislative successes.
* The Democrats must frankly copy the GOP's feat in 1980 -- agreeing on a few consistent themes, sticking with them, and repressing the "every man for himself" approach encouraged by a weakened party structure.
Already a test of the Democratic Party's resolve to get its act together has surfaced. "Mere mechanical reforms aren't enough," says Roger Craver, the leading fund-raiser for a host of Democratic candidates and liberal, progressive organizations such as Common Cause. "The party has to be clear on its point of view and stick by it. It can't talk about women's rights, and then back down when conservatives attack."
The consensus nature of the Democratic Party makes it difficult to duplicate the Republican feat, Mr. Craver readily concedes. But he has turned down a bid from Democrats on Capitol Hill to launch a fund-raising drive. He is waiting to see how the new party leadership evolves.
"If the new chairman follows the concensus position of past leaders," he says , "it will be a tough sell."
The party doesn't need a "new liberalism," says Craver and other liberal spokesmen like Leon Shull, director of the Americans for Democratic Action.
"Many of the points of the old liberalism are as valid and salable as they've ever been," Craver says. "The one new area they have to address is the growing role of government. But on minority rights, women's rights, limits of militarism -- social issues generally, they still have a strong following."
Ironically, fund raising and membership drives for liberal groups like the women's, pro-abortion, and environmentalist organizations are running at record rates. The archliberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) just had its best December and January in its fund-raising history, Craver says.
"It's dynamite," he says of liberal fundraising now.
The Democrats could easily build a list of a half-million donors who would give $10 million to $25 million a year. "They could raise money the next few months on fear of the New Right alone," Craver says.
But as former President Jimmy Carter found out last November, a fear-based Democratic strategy will not be enough to sustain a winning drive.Nor will abandoning traditional Democratic values.
"New liberalism? I don't know what it is," says the ADA's Mr. Shull. "The only thing on which I see the 'new liberals' challenging standard liberalism is using the marketplace to solve energy problems."
The Democrats' strategy, as it develops, will not be to "oppose every single change" the Republicans offer, Shull says. "We're not going to prejudge budget cuts. But when they're proposed, we're going to point out the consequences."
"The Democrats' successes were no social engineer's dream," Shull says. "The old, the sick, roads, pollutants in the air, dangerous chemicals -- the marketplace doesn't take care of these items. Society, if anybody, made these problems. It will be our job to point out [Reagan proposals] that punish that part of society that can least help itself."
The Democratic Party organization, especially at the top, needs drastic overhaul. Competing to replace John White as party chairman are Californian Charles Manatt, Charles Curry of Kansas City, Joseph Crangle of Buffalo, N.Y., and Pat Cunningham of New York City.
Mr. Manatt, senior partner in a Los Angeles law firm, is the front-runner. He's considered "an organization Democrat" with no strong ideological or regional stake. His record as California state chairman was one of a moderate. He worked in the Kennedy White House, later for Humphrey and Johnson, and has broad backing from the likes of maverick California Gov. Jerry Brown and traditionalist Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.
Mr. Curry, chairman of the Democratic Midwest Caucus and former Missouri state chairman, is considered a "mainstream" organization man."Except for Crangle, who worked for Senator Ted Kennedy's presidential campaign, none of the four is identified as left of center," one Democratic official says. "But neither are they conservative 'Scoop' Jackson types."
Policy matters will wait until after the new chairman is picked, DNC sources say. A commission will be formed to look again at the party's primary campaign rules, as mandated by the party convention last August.
Another certain topic to be raised: A broad voter opinion research program, such as the Republican National Committee coordinated for 1980. Democratic executive committee members already have questioned the exclusive emphasis pollster Patrick Caddell placed on the Carter presidential campaign and his neglect of other party candidates.
The Democrats have been quietly busy, holding special forums in Washington about how to regenerate the party.
"The common thread through the meetings is that the Democrats, through the last two decades, have let down on organization," says one professional Democrat who attended many of the sessions on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
"The stewardship of the Carter White House -- following a pattern of other recent Democratic presidents -- over the organizational aspects of Democratic politics was abysmal," concedes another party loyalist.It was organization, more than basic ideology that went flat for the Democratic Party in 1980 and must be revived."Events determine philosophical response," he says. "A party has to be ready to respond and adapt. This party wasn't."
The 1980 organizational letdown was not at Democratic National Committee headquarters and the White House alone, party officials say. Capitol Hill's efforts on behalf of Democratic incumbents was just as bad.
But many Democrats see signs of turnaround. The candidates for chairman are being interviewed by party power blocs on the Hill, by labor, and by state chairmen, as the need for a revived party organization sets in.
"Now you have the institutional side of the party seeking to play a role," says John Rendon, former DNC political director and a Carter campaign official. "Before, yo u had individuals seeking institutional support."