What now, Democrats?

The Democratic Party has been trying to pull itself together after being humbled by united Republicans and gnawed from within by its own "boll weevil" defectors. In partisan combat terms, its best hope might lie in a spreading of the economic clouds that scudded across Mr. Reagan's vacation and brought no-confidence votes from Wall Street. There have been those opponents who took some comfort in the President's getting the economic package he wanted so that what they saw as its deficiencies could be highlighted. By the same token, a fulfillment of the administration's promises of eventual sunshine would leave the Democrats farther out in the cold. It would be preferable all around to look beyond the partisan skirmishes to ways the Democrats can serve the two-party system by sharpening the issues and providing constructive alternatives where these are called for.

Such was not the course, unfortunately, of those Democrats in Congress who deplored the Reagan tax-cutting and then tried to outdo the Republicans in tax-break trinkets to swing wavering votes. One irony is that most of the 48 Democrats finally defecting to the Reagan side had previous voting records that already made them "functional Republicans." Most of them, too, were quite safe politically at home.

Whether the "Republicans" among the Democrats will revitalize it in a new and distinct image is open to question. It could be the "revisionist" but thoroughly Democratic younger generation including Senator Tsongas of Massachusetts and Senator Hart of Colorado as they interact with party leaders like Mondale and Kennedy. Gov. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, with his business management approach toward Democratic goals, exemplifies party resources at the state level. And there is promise of fresh thought beyond mere partisanship in the new think tank called the Center for Democratic Policy, headed by Terry Sanford. Some see the Democratic defeat last November as opening the party to thoughts and proposals ignored when it was entrenched.

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Organizational matters cannot be neglected, of course, if the positions on issues are to be effectively broght to the public. Ten days ago a party commission began taking another look at presidential nominating rules. Members are seeking means of increasing the representation of political professionals and elected officials in the nominating procedure without moving too far away from the reforms assuring representtion to women and minorities. The Pendulum's potential swing was indicated when such an advocate of participatory politics as Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser proposed that no more than half a state's delegation be chosen through a primary, leaving the remainder to be named in a party caucus or convention.

A couple of weeks earlier, the Young Democrats of America held their biennial convention. Headlines said they were shifting to the right. But who isn't? The question is how, to what extent, and on which issues.

The Reagan administration seems to be going rightward on every issue (though many persons who consider themselves conservative obviously do not want conservatism to be tarred with the brush wielded by some administration officials against protection of the environment or civil rights, for example). Where the Harts and the Tsongases beg to differ is in placing what they consider "realism" ahead of ideology on an issue by issue basis.

Mr. Hart questions the simplicity of spending more on the military by asking how much for what and suggesting that the biggest may not be the best for the task to be done. Mr. Tsongas, for his part, uses "realism" for a test on energy (stressing conservation and "renewables"); on taxes (favoring targeted investment incentives rather than across-the-board cuts); on the Russians (they are brutal but economic limits place constraints on them and it is in their self-interst to negotiate with the West); and, to give but one more example, on the current question of softened US attitudes toward South Africa (it is naive to expect that being nice to someone will cause them to do something they perceive to be against their self-interest, it takes pressure to convince them that continuing as they are is worse for them than making a change).

We're not trying to get into the campaign ourselves, of course. But it is dealing with issues rather than the prospects for rain on Mr. Reagan's parade that can truly bring the Democrats back from the wilderness.

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