The platform game

President Carter has his hard-fought nomination but it cannot be said that Edward Kennedy is without his hour of glory. The senator's speech to the Democratic convention, a last hurrah for his 1980 campaign, was without doubt the most masterful performance of his career. By eloquently rousing his unhappy followers to an emotional stampede, he has demonstrated his strong position within the Democratic Party. By his ringing call for a recommitment to "economic justice" for all Americans, he has kept alive the cause of Democratic liberalism.

And -- most important for Mr. Carter -- by deftly attaking Ronald Reagan and avoiding direct criticism of the President, Mr. Kennedy has laid the basis for possible party unity and peace in the election battle. Whatever lies ahead, the man from Massachusetts has launched himself well for 1984.

Jimmy Carter, of course, pays a price for Mr. Kennedy's conciliation and at least surface show of accord. The prty platform the President hoped would be adopted stressed fiscal conservatism and restraint (despite commitments to social welfare). It now includes Kennedy-generated amendments that inject a solid dose of liberalism.

While compromise avoided confrontation, it ironically has put the Democrats alongside the Republicans in conveying an impression of economic sleight of hand. Both platforms now contain planks that are difficult to reconcile or seem out of sync with reality. Thus, the Repubicans call for a massive increase in defense spending and for huge tax cuts at the same time. Mr. Reagan has yet to explain how this exercise can be performed without breaking the federal bank.

The Democratic platform, for its part, pledges not to use unemployment or high interest rates to fight inflation. Yet the fact is that in the past year the Carter administration has pursued a monetary policy that has dramatically pushed up interest rates and has accepted rising unemployment as the price for stemming inflation. If Mr. Carter were to begin pressuring the Federal Reserve to hold down interest rates and ease monetary restraint, he would in effect be abandoning the tool he has chosen to combat inflation.

Take too, the matter of fighting recession. The flatform now calls for an immediate $12 billion program to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, a Kennedy amendment aimed at stimulating the economy. But many will ask if such a massive program would not simply spur inflation. The current Carter approach is to try to create jobs through tax incentives designed to boost productivity. Hence the President's need to distance himself from this as well as othr economic planks in the platform.

At the heart of the dilemma raised in the two platforms is the question of economic priorities. How does the government allocate resources among such competing demands as boosting defense, fighting inflation, helping the poor, and generating growth? Republicans and Democrats do not disagree on many economic goals, yet neither party has fashioned a very persuasive concept for attaining them. And meanwhile, the two parties seem to have reversed roles as the GOP preaches tax cuts and the Democrats urge fiscal prudence and tax incentives for business to spur productivity and "reindustrialize" the nation.

This Democratic move to the right is what in part inspired Mr. Kennedy's nomination bid. Invoking the old traditions of the Democratic Party with its outreach to the "common man" he sought to rekindle the kind of idealism to which every American can respond. It was a compelling plea. But many Democrats, including workers, blacks, ethnic minorities, will ask whether the means of implementing the ideals can remain static, whether the old New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier prescriptions are adequate for today.

Even young Democratic liberals call for evolution. Sen. Paul Tsongas speaks of the need to extricate liberalism from the 1960s and to begin talking "in terms that mean something to a new generation." Sen. Gary Hart proposes a new "conceptual framework" focusing on economic incentives instead of government regulation. In his words, "there is no longer an assumption that creating a government program is the way to go."

In short, there will be little quarrel with Senator Kennedy's rousing cry that "the work of compassion must continue." Surely the middle class has not, or does not want to, lose the dream that all Americans can indeed "advance together." But precisely how, through what means, remains a practical and philosophical challenge for the Democratic nominee as he squares off aganist his Republican challenger.

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