WASHINGTON — WILL the Democratic Party be reborn in 1992? After stinging defeats in 1980, 1984, and 1988 at the hands of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, a number of leading Democrats hope to redesign and reorient the party before the next presidential election. The effort is being led by Democratic centrists - governors like Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Lawton Chiles of Florida - as well as state and local officeholders. Moderate Democrats in Congress, such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, also are deeply involved.
Their goal is clear-cut. They are trying to rid the party of its 20-year image as the tool of liberal ``special interests,'' and to reinvigorate it as the champion of average working Americans.
While President Bush remains formidable, these Democrats see serious Republican vulnerabilities that a regenerated Democratic Party could attack, particularly on the domestic front. ``All is not well in America,'' Governor Clinton observes. While the United States can win wars abroad, he says, it is losing equally important wars at home against ignorance, disease, and joblessness.
Clinton notes that in comparison to other industrialized countries, the US has a higher infant-mortality rate than 18 nations, worse scores in science and math than 12 nations, and lower adult literacy skills than at least 10 nations. Whether the battleground is education, health care, civil rights, economic competitiveness, jobs, or protecting the family, Republicans are falling short, say these Democrats.
``The Republicans don't have an agenda for our country,'' even though American jobs and technological strength are at risk in the 1990s, says Alvin From, executive director of the Democratic Leadership Council.
By advancing fiscally responsible solutions, Democratic moderates say, they can win back middle-class voters who were scared away by the party's antiwar, liberal rhetoric of the 1970s and '80s.
The main push to redesign the party has come from the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) - a group that was once dismissed as ``the Southern white boys' club.''
The DLC was put together in 1985 by people like Senators Nunn and Robb and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri.
In recent years, however, the DLC has been broadened to include non-Southerners, blacks, and women. Its national convention this week in Cleveland drew hundreds of participants from most sectors of the party.
Even so, the DLC raises the hackles of Democrats like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Other party members, such as Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, have launched an alternative group, the Coalition for Democratic Values, to defend the party's liberal traditions.
Democratic political consultant Victor Kamber argues that the DLC's ``actions over the past two or three years have moved the Democratic Party to a much more Republican agenda, which is a prescription for disaster.''
DLC members like Governor Clinton, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, and Rep. William Gray III of Pennsylvania make it clear, though, that they have no intention of trudging in the footprints of Mr. Reagan or Mr. Bush.
Clinton uses the education issue to illustrate differences between Democratic centrists and Republican White House.
Republicans have been tight-fisted with education budgets. Democratic centrists want a clear commitment for full-funding of Head Start, which is considered by both parties to be a highly-successful education program for pre-school children.
Democrats favor a youth apprenticeship program designed to help teenagers who will not be going to college. Beginning in the 10th grade, students would combine work with academic studies so that by the time they leave school they would be skilled and ready to take their places at a good-paying jobs.
College aid favored
At the college level, Democrats favor financial aid tied to voluntary service (such as teaching or working for a police force) after graduation. This would open college doors for middle-income families who currently have trouble affording a four-year diploma.
Democrats also take issue with Bush's ``choice'' program for schools, which would allow public money to be used by private and religious schools. The Bush plan is ``potentially very dangerous and divisive,'' says Clinton, who favors choice only among public schools.
Democratic centrists see other opportunities as well. They want bigger tax exemptions for children to help working families. They want job training for workers displaced by foreign imports. They want action on what Senator Rockefeller calls the ``number one financial issue,'' the need to provide health insurance for 37 million Americans who are without. Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who spoke to the DLC convention, says the key to Democratic success is to combine ``fiscal realism with social compa ssion.''
The extremes of both parties have exhausted themselves, suggests Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, with both the McGovernism of the '70s Democrats and the Reaganism of the '80s Republicans waning.