SEN. Edward M. Kennedy has eased but not resolved the main problem of the Democratic Party by withdrawing himself from the 1988 American presidential campaign. He has eased the problem in that, by withdrawing, he has deprived the Republicans of a chance to get their strategy and their ammunition in place long before the election year. It would be a relatively easy task for Republicans to plan their strategy and shape their ammunition against the senator. Any Kennedy is a familiar target.
As certain as anything can be in American politics, the senator from Massachusetts could have obtained the nomination of his party. Once having obtained the nomination, he could have tried to present himself to the voters as something new and different from the old Democratic Party of his brother and of the Roosevelt New Deal.
But no matter how hard he might have tried to present himself as the champion of some new order, he could never effectively divorce himself from his family's past. He is inevitably cast in the public mind as the champion of the welfare state, of a national policy that sets the expanding welfare of the people as a first charge on the taxpayer.
We ordinary citizens who watch all this from the sidelines know that Senator Kennedy has been trying to reposition himself toward the right in the political spectrum. But we also know that he has long been the main advocate of a national health scheme which to New Dealers and Great Society advocates would be the capstone in the arch of the welfare state.
Try as he might, Edward Kennedy can never escape being regarded as the heir of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of John F. Kennedy, and of Lyndon B. Johnson. As such he was unavoidably the favorite of the Republicans for the Democratic nomination. The Republicans would simply run against the New Deal, as they did when running against Carter. And, barring presently unforeseeable change in the American political scene, the Republicans would most probably win on that strategy.
This is why Senator Kennedy took himself out of the race. He could have had his party's nomination. But his chances of winning the election were poor, as the party professionals told him when he sounded out their opinion.
So what the Republicans hoped for on the next Democratic ticket is not to be. The field for the Democrat Party professionals is open. They can start looking for a candidate who will better meet the perceived needs of 1988 than anyone named Kennedy could. But what will be the perceived needs of 1988?
Here is the real problem for the Democrats, because we are not yet at a time when there is either a widely perceived crisis or a widely perceived sense of the right solution to the crisis.
An easy way to get this in perspective is to remember what a happy time the Democrats had back in 1932 when they nominated Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The country was in a true crisis. The economy was in a shambles. Everyone knew that conditions were dreadful and that totally new remedies were required.
In 1932 the Republicans could not possibly win. All the Democrats had to do was to nominate someone who could inspire confidence that he could produce new answers to an obvious problem.
Today many an economist tells us that there is going to be a day of reckoning for Reagan economics. There are plenty of reasons for being worried about the future consequences of Mr. Reagan's high deficits and his mountain of federal debt. But the average man in the street does not yet feel a crisis.
In 1932 everyone could feel and see and experience the fact of crisis. Today most Americans are well off. More are employed than ever before. There is still some growth in the economy. Mr. Reagan has just dampened down fears of possible war by socializing with the Gorbachevs in Geneva. There may be trouble ahead, but it does not yet translate into the daily life of most Americans.
Great political overturns come when the mass of voters perceive themselves in the trough of crisis and look around for a new answer. Without a perceived crisis to fuel the demand for a change, the Democrats can only grope in the dark for a strategy and a candidate who may or may not be suitable to what the condition of the country will be in 1988.