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Democratic Party analysts take measure of special-interest group splintering

By John DillinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 1984


Samuel P. Huntington, a history professor at Harvard University, has been a loyal Democrat. He worked for President Jimmy Carter as a national-security adviser from 1977 to 1981. This year he supported Walter Mondale, despite prospects of a Reagan landslide. But now the professor has doubts about 1988.

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The Democratic Party, Dr. Huntington says, ''lacks a vision'' and has shown ''inflexibility.'' Without strong leadership in Washington, the party, he contends, has largely been captured by narrowly focused interest groups.

All this is severing some old ties to the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, the professor says. He found more evidence of that recently when he attended a party with about 50 intellectuals in Cambridge, Mass.

''I was about the only person around who had voted for Mondale,'' Huntington said with some surprise. ''These were all people who were good Democrats . . . 8 or 10 years ago.''

Are the professor's concerns about the party and its future exaggerated? Some experts think so.

Even though the Democrats lost the White House again in 1984, they gained two seats in the US Senate, and they still easily control the US House of Representatives. Furthermore, out in the countryside, they have about two-thirds of the 50 state governorships and control most state legislatures.

One political scientist suggests that there is no problem the Democrats have that could not be cured immediately if the unemployment rate moved above 10 percent.

The Democratic comeback in Washington would be swift.

Yet in private conversations, many leading Democrats lament what is happening to their party, and they concede that things may get much worse.

Robert Strauss, a former Democratic chairman, said after last month's election that interest groups will continue to reach for control over the party:

''The defeat will mean nothing to them,'' he told a reporter.

''The hunger of these groups will be even greater,'' he added. ''Women, blacks, teachers, Hispanics. They have more power, more money than ever before.

''Do you think these groups are going to turn the party loose? Do you think labor is going to turn the party loose? Jesse Jackson? The others? Forget it!''

Democratic problems, of course, are most pertinent to those living in the United States.

But there could also be repercussions around the globe - in the free world, the third world, and in communist-dominated nations - if the party continues to decline in influence in Washington.

Some political scientists, including Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), note that Democratic woes have become more and more serious since Vietnam.

That war shook America's confidence in itself, Dr. Ranney says. But it appears to have left one of its most lasting marks on the Democrats.

The party of Roosevelt and Kennedy, notes Ranney, was one that supported a strong foreign policy and heavy spending for defense. Until the early 1970s, it was outward-looking, the party of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and NATO.

Since Vietnam, Democrats have allowed Republicans to dominate the defense debate.