FROM the comfortable way the Democratic Party is settling in for at least four years more of Republican administration, one would hardly believe that Michael Dukakis's 1988 defeat was also a Democratic defeat. Of course, Mr. Dukakis's lack of manifest passion and machismo and the supercilious exclusiveness of an organization that thought it knew everything but understood nothing helped sink the candidate. But Dukakis's major problem was that he reflected all too well the state of mind of the Democratic Party in 1988.
Two decades ago, Richard Nixon began creating the ``new Republican majority,'' transmuting the ``silent majority'' into the ``selfish majority.'' Watergate temporarily interrupted its career, but Ronald Reagan continued to enlarge it and George Bush proved that it was a sociological phenomenon, not a personality cult.
How have the Democrats responded? In 1968, 1972, and 1984, their candidates proclaimed that ``Happy Days'' were still here, that the New Deal coalition was alive and well. In 1976, they won by a fluke. In 1988, the party decided to just say no to liberal nostalgia and proudly gave birth to a non-platform. When Mr. Bush bullied Dukakis about being a liberal, the latter seemed to imply that the charge was very unfair because he and his party really stood for ... nothing.
Bush asked his supporters to read his lips. Dukakis asked his supporters to read his mind. No one knew what he stood for. We all convinced ourselves he believed what we believed. In a factionalized Democratic Party, the least common denominator was no message at all. And the fact that there was no message, no momentum, no challenge, no drama allowed Bush to ambush the campaign with idiotic issues like Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The future of the Democratic Party depends on whether it can find a genuine message, relevant to both the nation's survival and the electorate's wishes (if these two are still compatible).
There are three ways the Democratic Party can redevelop: around a person, an idea, or an organization. There seems to be no Moses waiting to lead the party from the wilderness. The future will have to be forged with ideas and organization.
If the party's future lies in serving the nation, then a message that addresses the real problems of the 1990s must be defined now, not in 1992, and constitute the program of a principled opposition to the Bush administration. The Democratic Party has to take a leadership role on the two great issues that face our country today: ending the cold war and restoring the American economy. Mikhail Gorbachev has evinced real interest in normalizing relations with the United States, ending costly proxy wars in the third world, and talking seriously about arms controls. Both the US and the Soviet Union need to redirect defense spending into the civilian sector. Paradoxically, the best way for the US and the USSR to preserve their international role is to recognize that they are currently overextended, and cooperation is essential to both their futures.
The future of the economy requires recognizing that continuing deficits by the government and excessive consumer spending instead of saving, research, and investment will put us ultimately in the situation of a banana republic.
Reliance on the myth of the free market instead of an effort by the government to coordinate our resources will make it impossible for the US to compete with Western Europe and Japan. If, or more aptly, when we suffer serious economic reverses in the next few years, the Democratic Party must be ready to offer a new economic strategy, not just crisis management.
The question is, who will do the thinking? Who will bring the intellectuals together and translate abstract ideas into a concrete legislative program? The Democratic Party has become a non-organization, like the Musical Banks in Samuel Butler's ``Erewhon.''
Can we create an opposition brain trust, just as Franklin Roosevelt created a government brain trust? Can we offer a genuine alternative to the American people - not just hackneyed liberalism or ersatz Reaganism, but the considered reflection of the best minds of the country?
Frankly, if the Democratic Party cannot do that, it will not be able to govern effectively, and its electoral success or failure will be irrelevant to this nation's future.