Democrats: the party of the future?

Everyone's favorite story this week, after the Democratic convention, seems to be the pending demise of the Democratic Party - not just in 1984, but for the foreseeable future. There have been countless dire analyses of the post-New Deal and Great Society crises, the conflict between the old and the new, the lack of any unifying or coherent Democratic Party philosophy - all in contrast to the smooth and unified Republican Party, which has its act wholly together.

There is some truth to this thesis, and little question that the Democrats have a problem. The Democratic Party, as a presidential party, can't seem to control its component parts, much less even identify the components. But a strong case can also be made for the opposite thesis: After 1984, it is the GOP that has a problem, and the Democrats who hold most of the high cards.

The arguments start with people - which is where any argument about American political parties should start. We do not have European-style parties, hierarchical and ideological, nor do we have a European-style, ideologically driven citizenry. To be sure, our citizens have ideas about government, public policy, and the future, and our parties had better conform to those ideas. But the ideas are not strongly ideological, and while our parties do have differences in ideas and philosophy, they are differences, in the analogy of Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, between the 40-yard lines.

Most significantly, those differences do not determine the success or failure of our parties. Ronald Reagan (who was elected president just six years after the Republican Party was declared dead), was elected not because of his philosophy; he was elected to provide change, and because he possessed an attractive and compelling personality.

Ronald Reagan showed that, along with events and the natural balances built into our political system by the Founding Fathers, what matters most is the people who lead the parties, who become the personification of the direction and philosophy of the parties to the public.

Forget the coherent philosophical themes of today's GOP; forget the floundering of today's Democrats. Think people. Here the Democrats have an edge - a wide edge. While all the talk this week has been about the Democrats' generational problems, the fact is that the Democrats have had remarkable success at recruiting impressive talent into their elective ranks, at all levels. They have a deep team of young, attractive, and persuasive leaders ready to dominate their party's presidential politics in 1988 and beyond.

As for the Republicans - they will be the party of the old, with largely tired faces from the party's past dominating the race for succession in four years. Despite a massive effort to recruit top talent into its elective ranks, the GOP's elite level remains rather thin. For a public that tends to personify its parties and its politics, the Democrats win.

Consider, to start, the impressive array of attractive leaders the Democrats have now in Congress and in statehouses around the country. It's easy to name a score of all-stars right off the bat: Bill Bradley, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Jeff Bingaman, David Boren from the Senate; Mario Cuomo, Bruce Babbitt, Chuck Robb, Bob Graham, Martha Layne Collins, and Bill Clinton among the governors, along with Govs. Jay Rockefeller and Jim Hunt (if they make it to the Senate in '84); Richard Gephardt, Tim Wirth, Geraldine Ferraro, Leon Panetta from the House; and Wilson Goode, Dianne Feinstein, and Henry Cisneros among the mayors.

Should Mondale lose in 1984, some of these individuals will run for the Democratic nomination in 1988 (along with Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy); should he win, the competition will be even more spirited in 1992. Regardless, the point is that the Democrats will be alive and kicking. The list of attractive young Democrats who can project themes and ideas that will appeal to a good share of the electorate in the late 1980s and '90s is very long indeed. It just starts with the 20 above.

The news for the Republicans is not nearly so good. Their likely contenders for the top spot in 1988 are the old warhorses, George Bush, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole (all of whom are at least as much attached to the ''old politics'' as Walter Mondale), along with ''new face'' Jack Kemp, whose broader appeal is, at best, untested. True, the Republicans are not wholly bereft of farm-team talent: Nancy Kassebaum, Warren Rudman, Slade Gorton, Dick Cheney, Dan Lungren, Olympia Snowe, Elizabeth Dole, and Richard Thornburgh, to name a few, are all attractive and interesting politicians. But it is much harder to see any of them seriously contesting for a presidential nomination than it is to see any of the Democrats mentioned above capturing the top of the ticket. For every fresh and talented new face the Republicans can uncover, the Democrats seem to have two.

Some of these people will no doubt turn out to be disappointments. Future leadership for the Republicans may yet come from other, more surprising sources, and, for the Democrats, from more staid and conventional places. But before we declare the Democratic Party dead and buried, we ought to consider carefully the talent emerging in impressive numbers at all political levels. And before we declare the Republicans the clear-cut party of the future, we ought to look with much greater care at its personnel problems in the decade ahead. The Democrats may lose the battle for the White House in 1984, but they are poised to win the war of the parties in the 1990s.

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