Williamsburg, Va. — For two days here last week, a few dozen politicians calling themselves the Democratic Leadership Council munched on hors d'oeuvres and tried to plot a centrist course for their party. They debated the budget deficit and trade, political repercussions from the Iran arms scandal, welfare reform, arms control, and labor-management relations.
Senators talked to congressmen; congressmen talked to mayors, governors, and county commissioners. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia described the whole affair as an attempt to lay the ``intellectual foundations'' for a presidential bid by a conservative Southern Democrat.
By conference end Friday, some of the presidential hopefuls in attendance might have picked up a few ideas for their nascent campaigns. A number of participants said they felt invigorated by the event. ``This is the future of the Democratic Party,'' exulted Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma. ``The next Democratic presidential nominee is going to be someone in this room.''
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) bills itself as a ``dynamic new force in national politics'' and the brain trust for Democrats pondering how to seize the political initiative in the post-Reagan age.
It was formed after the 1984 Democratic convention by a clique of disaffected, mostly Southern, conservatives who had lost a fight for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee.
The DLC quickly expanded in size and influence and now includes a smattering of Midwestern moderates and Northern liberals, including some of the party's brightest young lights.
Because all of its members are, or were, elected public servants of some sort, DLC champions like to say that the organization is unique, its deliberations grounded in a practicality born of experience that is missing from other party councils.
But the DLC is not merely a debating society for Democratic politicians. Its members still wince over the electoral thrashing endured by Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election. For 1988, they are determined to see the Democratic Party nominate a political centrist, one who acknowledges the public demand for a less intrusive and more thrifty federal government that spawned the Reagan revolution, while remaining true to Democratic Party principles.
The tactical groundwork for such a nomination was laid with the establishment of a ``Super Tuesday'' of presidential primaries in conservative Southern states for 1988. Now, DLC members say they are trying to come up with the concepts on which to base a winning presidential bid.
``The point of this meeting is winning,'' says DLC chairman and former Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, himself frequently mentioned as a possible presidential contender. ``We are trying to suggest a direction for the Democratic Party.''
It is uncertain that the party will follow. The DLC has raised the ire of many Democratic activists, who suggest that its members are flirting dangerously with quasi-Republicanism. Several ``new generation'' Democrats, including Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Gary Hart of Colorado, have carefully avoided membership in the organization.
The group is widely perceived to be dominated by Southern conservatives, in tone if not in fact.
``This is a group of white male Southern conservatives who believe in the Reagan revolution but think they can manage it better,'' observed one journalist at the close of the conference.
DLC members scoff at such characterizations and insist that their pragmatism is the party's ticket to the White House. They speak of developing a ``new democratic capitalism'' to address such ills as the nation's declining productivity. Theirs is an approach, they say, that no party - Democrat or Republican - has attempted.
``FDR was a pragmatist; if a policy didn't work, he threw it out and went on to the next idea,'' says Sen.-elect Bob Graham of Florida. Adds former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson: ``The bottom line is, we have to win in '88. And it's not going to help us to nominate someone who fits the traditional mold of the Democratic Party and loses 49 out of 50 states.''