The Democrats' future: it must be earned

TOO much strident rhetoric has been wasted lately on how and if the Democratic Party can recapture the voters' respect at the ballot box. Too little has been said about whether we deserve that respect. Some have said that the party has drifted from the mainstream of American political values, which, they say, are now more closely mirrored by the Republican Party. They conclude that the Democrats should adopt a course of middle ground, more in line with the Republicans. Future electoral victories will not come about because Democrats become more like Republicans.

Our party has nothing to be ashamed of. The method of a party is to win elections -- the purpose of a party is to find the truth of public weal and to achieve it. This is what should interest Democrats today, and as we fulfill that purpose we will win at the ballot box.

In addition to the issues, fresh and dynamic candidates are important, too. Nothing underscores this more than the current, popular President. With such new faces as Bill Bradley, Richard Gephardt, John D. Rockefeller IV, and Charles Robb, not to mention those who have already aspired in this arena, the Democratic Party is hardly lacking in good presidential prospects.

But acknowledging the necessity of strong candidates with popular concerns is not to say that one party should ape the other. It is important that we have two strong political parties. Democrats are proud to trace their origins to the early 1790s, when the party helped achieve the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Those were days of political philosophy, in which the Newcastle Patriotic Society wisely resolved that ``the collision of opposite opinions produces the spark which lights the torch of truth.''

The Democratic Party today must help light the torch of truth for our times.

As the future becomes the present, the responsibilities of a political party change and new duties must be matched with proven ideals. Instead of synthesizing views, the Democratic Party has stagnated with a proliferation of voices, positions, and programs, some of which outlived their usefulness.

Sen. Edward Kennedy has recently espoused a new stance of moderation. But it is not just moderation we need. We need a firm dedication to principles and the leadership of people who have supported those principles and our nominees even through unfavorable climates.

The failure to do our own housecleaning gave Ronald Reagan a target of opportunity. Calling himself a conservative, he was elected to cut the fat from a bureaucratic, tax-hungry government, an objective still desired by Americans. Former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan expressed it best when she said, ``People do not want to have great new spending programs. That is not our future. People want lean and mean government.''

President Reagan is no conservative. He is a radical. Witness his 1981 tax bill, the most radical fiscal measure effected by any US government. How radical was it? Because of that bill, the General Electric Company paid no taxes at all for a three year period -- 1981 through 1983 -- on its $6.5 billion net income; other corporations have done even better, while many middle-income people are worse off than before.

Further evidence of Reagan's radicalism shows up in his recent MX victory. Billions of dollars will now be siphoned from necessary systems for this highly vulnerable and faulted weapon, which adds redundancy to US nuclear deterrence. Meanwhile, there continues to exist a dangerous deficiency in our conventional capability.

These two defense errors are tied together. Gen. Bernard Rogers, NATO commander in Europe, has repeatedly said that the Soviets could overrun Europe in a matter of days. The US planned response is to go quickly and without hesitation to nuclear war. It was a dangerously radical scheme of the President to spend that money on a disaster like the MX instead of on the conventional weapons that could help prevent a nuclear war. No country can win a nuclear war.

By championing conventional deterrence without abandoning nuclear deterrence, Democrats accurately show themselves to be strong on defense, much stronger than an administration which asserts that it will be the first nation to use nuclear weapons.

A second plank of a proposed Democratic platform would address the deficit. All Presidents, from Washington through Carter, amassed a national debt of only a trillion dollars. Ronald Reagan, largely because of his 1981 tax cut bill, has doubled the national debt. This, of course, with the help of those congressmen who voted for it. I did not.

There are several bills pending before Congress that could help reduce the debt by tax reform. HR 18, for example, is essentially a reform bill that taxes only the well-to-do who have escaped all taxes, and it would bring in about $125 billion over the next five years. In a poll last month, more than 79 percent voted for a reform like this, the highest figure for any item in the poll. Democrats should seize the public's support for this issue and waste no time in enacting legislation.

Finally, along with a strong defense posture that would allow us to fight when attacked (and not resort to the immorality that is nuclear destruction) and a strong fiscal policy against the deficit, we Democrats should try to have legislative answers in the tradition of the idealistic heritage of the party.

Democrats must not turn their backs on people who are being left behind as our ``Great Society'' takes strides into the future. While technology may improve life for most Americans, we must not forget that the rest of us must benefit as well. Every American should have a real chance to strive to become a vital working part of the great future of the American experiment.

We must find a way to ensure that all who want to work can find a reasonable income from employment, preferably in the private sector. Subsidies should not be ruled out. For instance, I have a bill in Congress that would take back some of the excessive tax write-offs of the 1981 tax bill unless each corporation that benefits could demonstrate that new jobs had been provided by the windfall.

Our platform should be that simple. Think of it, a national platform for the Democratic Party with only 15 words: strong national defense, war on deficits and waste, and a lifting hand to willing workers. Our 1984 platform had so many words -- 33 pages of them -- that I, for one, never read it.

About a hundred years ago Alexis de Tocqueville wrote something that has special meaning for our party today: ``The political parties which I style great are those which cling to principles more than consequences; to general, and not to especial cases; to ideas, and not to men. These parties are usually distinguished by a nobler character, by more generous passions, more genuine convictions.''

That is the kind of party the Democrats have been. We will win again at the ballot box -- not because we pander to every passing request but because we have high principles and stand squarely behind them. To paraphrase John Houseman's TV commercial, we will meet with success when and if we earn it.

US Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D) of Florida is the third most senior member of Congress.

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