Washington — Democratic Party leaders are warning the rank of file to prepare for a long stay in the political wilderness. There are immediate nuts-and-bolts things to be done, they say. Fund raising , poll taking, legal help for redistricting fights, reform of primary nomination rules to get battle-wise pros back into the process -- these are on the agenda of newly elected Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt, who sees the Republican ahead in nearly every party management category.
And the Democrats must find an immediate political strategy to deal with the Reagan economic program. So far, the response they see evolving is to agree in principle on the need to cut federal spending, but to delay or stretch out the tax cuts. They are trying to stake out the middle ground as moderates, warning of the deficit and inflationary dangers of the Reagan plan.
But the Democrats see their needs running deeper than just getting their national party and congressional acts together.
A consensus is building that their decline traces back at least a dozen years , to 1968 and the Humphrey defeat. They are going easier now on President Carter's personal leadership failures, admitting the Democrats were defeated "as a party" in 1980.
The Carter '76 election was the aberration, not the '80 loss, says the former president's domestic adviser, Stuart Eisenstadt, in explaining the emerging Democratic orthodoxy. Middle-class voters still support New Deal programs, like social security, which benefit the public across the board. But since at least 1968 the middle class had begun to begrudge rising Great Society benefits for the underclass while inflation eroded their own incomes.
The political wheel, however, turns, Democratic strategists tell one another.
The public responds increasingly to specific issues rather than along party lines. So a patient waiting for the Reagan programs to falter, or a new public agenda to emerge, could refurbish the Democrats' propsects.
"In 1980 a series of specific issues -- each of which tended to favor the Republicans --dominated the campaign dialogue and shaped the ultimate results," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. "If support for a stronger national defense, less government spending, and a businesslike approach to inflation are replaced by different priorities in future elections, the gains the Republicans made in the last election are likely to be transient. . . ."
Mr. Hart says the 1980 election was not in itself a realignment election, giving the Republicans an upper hand.
"The key to the 1980 election is the fact that 75 million Americans chose not to participate," he says. "If a truly . . . long-lasting realignment is to occur, those Americans under age 40 who have never voted or do so only occasionally must be included. At present, these people are on the sidelines."
To win over the "baby boom" generation of nonvoters, Hart says, the Democratic Party must stop running "free-lance, individual campaigns" and develop "a central message and theme" for all candidates.
Neither party has a natural majority in presidential elections any longer, says another Democratics strategist, Michael Barone. Nonetheless, Republicans have had a clear edge in amassing a national coalition since 1968, averaging 51 percent of the popular vote to the Democrats' 43 percent -- close to the 1980 outcome.
"The Democratic percentages have been 43, 38, 50, and 41 -- one bare majority and three showings well short of a majority," Mr. Barone says.
Separating the Deep South (plus West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma) from the rest of the country makes the Democrats' story grimmer, Barone says. The South had been out of reach of the Democrats in 1968 and 1972, when Southern whites voted strongly against black-favored candidates. And Carter did bring Southern whites into a Democratic voting pattern similar to Northern whites in both 1976 and 1980 -- a significant achievement, he continues.
But outside the South, Carter did as poorly as did George McGovern in 1972 -- 39.7 percent to McGovern's 40.1 percent.
Barone says recruits among professional-executive and Protestant voters have not been enough to offset Democratic losses among blue-collar and Roman Catholic voters in the East and in big Midwestern cities.
The Democrats' greatest danger is being perceived as "the no-growth party," says strategist Hart. But if the Republicans are seen adopting a "give business everything" approach, the Democrats can take away the center on the issue.
Partly, the Democrats' weakness is emphasized by their loss of the White House and their Senate majority, some analysts point out. Also, the nature of the Democrats as more a collection of sub-parties than a single unit, exaggerates their fumbling when out of power.
The recent creation of a coalition of labor, educational, and urban groups to resist Reagan spending cuts is not expected to prove particularly effective. Also, the formation of the Center for Democratic Policy -- a think tank along the lines of the Republicans' American Enterprise Institute -- is not likely to begin to pay off in the development of new analysis and ideas for several years.