Democrats: in search of an agenda

Democrats have been taking most of their presidential octet to the big media centers, trying to raise a little cash and attention. They need both - and mostly the latter.

An active White House like Reagan's can usually hold center stage against challengers. That is the start of the Democrats' problem. Beyond that, they are responsible themselves. The challenging party must offer some vivid alternative, in policy or emphasis. Just a couple weeks away from calendar 1984, the Democrats still grope for identity.

It might not be enough for the Democratic nominee to not be Reagan. The President now looks politically strong. He's begun to run ahead of Mondale and Glenn in one-on-one matchups. His actual strength might be greater. His positions are well-known. Those voters who oppose him on specific grounds turn to his opponent, often without a clear sense of where the not-Reagan candidate himself stands. Reagan might look better when his challengers' positions get better defined.

What can the Democrats do to make a good race of it? One idea: Try an act of nuclear statesmanship - seek a common front with Republicans vis-a-vis the Soviets on arms control to exempt arms negotiations from the tensions of the election campaign - suggests Michael Colopy, a former SALT talks and Glenn campaign aide, on today's Opinion Page. The idea has merit. It would permit the Democrats to make their own peace pitch - that the US can be strong without bearing undue risks to US lives abroad. It would set the stage for reciprocal GOP support on arms talks, should the Democrats win in 1984. Most important, it could show an initiative and thrust the party has seemed to lack since the Carter mid-term election.

The Democrats still are recovering from the shocks of '78 and '80. They are adrift, surrendering the lead to Ronald Reagan. The nomination balloting is about to begin, the election itself is 11 months off, and Reagan still holds the agenda.

The Democrats have opportunities. The country is not as conservative as Mr. Reagan. There was no realignment of party allegiances in 1980. The party is organized far better than previously at the national level. It can get back the blue-collar vote in the Midwest and South. Party strategists think they see an opening in a Reagan image as willing to risk too much overseas. Their job on the economy, they say, is to argue that Reagan has helped few while hurting many - that he is an uncaring and rich man's President.

The Democrats regret forfeiting an advantage in 1981 when they went as far as Reagan did in supporting tax breaks for business and the well-to-do. On the quality-of-life issues - civil rights, women's opportunities, the environment, the social impact of policy - the Democrats claim an edge, but not one they've wrapped up.

The party's frustration is perhaps best seen in the younger House Democrats. They can get themselves re-elected, they complain, but they can't seem to affect the direction of the party and the country. The political leverage seems to reside in the White House and the Senate. For the US House and state and local offices the Democrats again clearly hold the national advantage, where they retain a populist image. The Republican lead for the White House and Senate mystifies them.

The party that has enjoyed the greatest long-run success the past century has been the one seen by the public as nearest right on the economy - the GOP from the last century into the 1920s, the Democrats from the 1930s and the popularity of Keynesianism. Loss of fiscal policy control began in 1965, with a string of federal deficits under both parties. Into the '70s, the Democrats' economic theories just didn't seem to work anymore. They're toying now with something called ''new industrial policy,'' which won't likely take them far. The economic action has been on the GOP side, with monetarism, supply-side theory, and what some call the ''old-time religion'' of recession austerity to curb inflation.

The Democrats haven't completed the job of rustling up some new energy, in economic theory and policy, to counter Reagan's. Until they do, unless events abroad interrupt the campaign's course, it's hard to see how he will yield the advantage.

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