Democrats and union labels

NEXT time the Democrats will make it an ``ideological'' fight, stressing a nuclear freeze and compassion for minorities. Next time an ``ideological'' leader, like a Kennedy or a Cuomo or a Hart, will be chosen to lead the way.

Next time a Northern industrial-state strategy will be followed, with the South pretty much abandoned.

This is what some influential Democratic leaders are saying two months after the 1984 presidential election.

With a liberal candidate and a liberal theme, they think they can recapture the presidency. But they forget that Walter Mondale's potential as a nominee was largely destroyed by preconvention warfare among the party candidates. How will they prevent that in 1988?

From the viewpoint of Republicans, Mr. Mondale sounded a liberal theme that frightened many conservatives. But Democrats who talk of mounting an ``ideological'' campaign think Mondale made so many concessions to conservatives that he cooled the ardor of liberals.

Another problem for Mondale this campaign, which appears likely to be repeated in 1988, was early endorsement by the powerful AFL-CIO. Mondale wooed and won the union's support. But almost overnight he was being called the candidate of labor and other ``special interests,'' not by the Republicans but by his Democratic opponents.

Now the AFL-CIO is apparently set to do the same thing four years hence. Lane Kirkland, the union president, has said his union will again endorse a Democratic candidate early in the race.

Once again, it seems, we will be seeing Democratic hopefuls line up to pay homage to AFL-CIO leaders in their bid to gain the endorsement that is at best a mixed blessing.

With a lot of help from labor, Mondale won the nomination. But the early endorsement was a real minus during the final campaign. Why would the AFL-CIO do this again? Evidently Mr. Kirkland believes the union did quite well, overall, with its endorsements. He indicates some 62 percent of its endorsed candidates won state or local offices.

But it is arguable that labor was one of the big losers -- that it simply has to see itself as part of the trouncing. Kirkland is uncomfortably aware that someone other than Mondale now occupies the White House.

So the question of whether a pure, liberal ideological message would ``play'' or not in 1988 would probably be moot by convention time. By then the eventual nominee would likely have been damaged by intramural wars and bogged down by an AFL-CIO ``special interest'' label.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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